Framing Teen Smoking in Chinese Movies from 1978 to 2005: A Visual Narrative Analysis

Yue Zheng (University of South Carolina, Columbia (SC), USA)

Summary of the Project


Smoking seems a common behavior everywhere in the world, and it is also prevalently portrayed in movies. It is well known that mass media can influence people’s attitudes and behaviors (Scheufele, 1999), by “framing” media content-“selecting some aspects of a perceived reality and making them more salient in a communicating text” (Entman, 1993, p. 52). Prior scholars found that for teenagers who never puffed on a cigarette, being exposed to smoking scenes in popular movies would significantly increase teenagers’ receptivity to smoking (Sargent et al., 2002) and then promote their smoking initiations (Dalton et al., 2003; Sargent et al., 2001). The favors of movie stars who had ever smoked on screen would also accelerate teens’ smoking initiations (Distefan, Gilpin, Sargent, & Pierce, 1999). Regarding the influences for teen smoking, on-screen smoking played an even more important role than parents and teachers, since teens were in an age when they were rebellious to traditional authorities (Distefan et al., 1999).

It is thus very important to know how movies frame smoking situations for teenagers. Previous researchers found in most U.S. movies, smoking was framed as a socially acceptable behavior and meanwhile as a way to relieve tension (Dalton et al., 2002). Other scholars detected that there were no significant differences between teen smokers and nonsmokers in terms of their demographic characteristics (Stern & Morr, 2013). However, those studies employed quantitative content analysis mostly by counting the number and the length of smoking occurrences, but neglecting the contexts and motivations behind teen smoking. In addition, prior cross-cultural researchers only examined the impacts of on-screen smoking on teens in European countries (Morgenstern et al., 2011), but neglecting the effect on any Asian country. To fill those gaps, this study employed a qualitative narrative analysis to examine how Chinese movies framed teen smoking in past 30 years.

Research Question

RQ: How did Chinese movies frame teen smoking?

Theoretical Framework

By “selecting some aspects of a perceived reality and making them more salient in a communicating text” (Entman, 1993, p. 52), media present news content in a variety of frames helping reduce the complexity of issues. Media content is thus made up of a set of frame-centered interpretive packages (Gamson, 1989). Through constantly suggesting meanings and explanations of these issues, mass media influence the way people think about these issues (Scheufele, 1999).


This study employed narrative analysis, which works primarily for “identifying, analyzing and reporting patterns and themes within data” (Braun & Clarke, 2006, p. 79; Riessman, 1993).

This study focused on the movies directed from 1978 to 2005, since 1) China conducted the economic reform in 1978 when Chinese movie market started transforming from government- oriented to audience-oriented; 2) in 2005, China signed Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO, 2005) and agreed to reduce the smoking image in the movies.

This study then employed, the most popular movie review website in China, to search for the teen movies from 1978 to 2005 with the highest ratings. The current study analyzed the following four movies: In the Heat of the Sun (Jiang, 1995); Teeth of Love (Zhuang, 2007); Summer Palace (Lou, 2005); and Waiting Alone (Wu, 2005). This study would keep coding more movies and develop the results for future publication.


By employing a thematic analysis of the teen smoking images depicted in Chinese teen movies, this study explored how and why teens smoked in their daily lives through identifying a range of smoking themes:

For teen smokers, it was not surprising that there were more male teen smokers than female teen smokers on screen. And there was a common character running across almost all teen smokers: being leisure. Most teen smokers either skipped the class or quit the job. Their center lives were more about having funs with friends, dating, or killing time. That was opposite to the common belief that smokers relied on cigarettes to refresh themselves and relieve tension (Dalton et al., 2003).

Regarding smoking situations, there was a consensus: teenagers had never ever smoked in front of their parents. In addition, smoking was framed as a useful social tool, serving as an icebreaker for two strangers; as the gamble stakes; as the refreshments for a group meeting; as the entertainment for a break; and as a time killer.

The way teenagers employed cigarettes to deal with their relationships depended on diverse situations: if teen boys met with a girl they did not know very well, they usually would not smoke in the first couple of meetings; but teen boys would smoke in front of the girls that they knew very well and most girls did not mind boys’ smoking; when a teen boy tried to hook up with a female smoker, asking for smoking together turned as an effective way; but when a girl tried to please a male smoker, learning how to smoke would even worsen that girl’s reputation.

Smoking behaviors also appeared frequently when teens are engaged in certain solo works, particular the work that required intensive cognitive thinking, such as thinking how to write a novel, thinking the possible reasons why the girl did not call him for a week, thinking when his girlfriend started seeing other rich cute guys, thinking how to intimidate a teen boy who did not follow the gang rules, and so on.

Teens also smoked after they finished a heavy work, such as submitting a novel draft to a publisher or finishing the sexual intercourse. Teens also smoked before a risk work, such as fighting with another teen gangs.

It was surprising that when teens felt sad or depressed, they just cried out instead of smoking. Interestingly, teens smoked more often when they felt happy than when they expressed negative moods.

There was not such a scene explaining teen smoking initiation: when teens smoked the first time, who taught them to smoke, how they purchased cigarettes, and where the money came from. The directors just assumed teenagers had to smoke and had been smoking for a while in the movies. There was also not any mention of the smoking outcome, such as becoming more and more unhealthy or poor. The only possible negative outcome of smoking might be the failure to hook up with pretty girls. There was only one scene that mentioned a teen quitted smoking, because his girlfriend dumped him and dated with a rich old adult. That guy felt extremely heart broken and decided to move on by quitting smoking.

The findings of this study could help health practitioners better decrease the prevalence of teen smoking images in future movies to alleviate teen smoking initiations in early age.


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Jiang, W. (Writer). (1995). In the Heat of the Sun Beijing, China: China Film Co-Production Corporation.

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Methodological Reflections

Methodological Challenges

There were some methodology challenges for a visual narrative analysis of movie content: 1) There is no complete database for movie archives, especially for Chinese movies. While YouTube carry many available Chinese movies, those movies were uploaded voluntarily by Internet users. In other words, YouTube movies are not official sources; 2) The coding work of movie is very time-consuming. The coders had to go through the entire movie literally second by second, while most smoking occurrences last just a couple of minutes. Unlike the coding works of texts, coders can easily jump to the target paragraph by searching the keywords. Although some video abstraction techniques were developed for fast video content analysis, those software abstracts the videos based on the key storylines (Li, Lee, Yeh, & Kuo, 2006). The key storylines used for video abstraction mentioned more about when and where what event happened for whom. They rarely mentioned whether or not the actors smoked in those situations. As a result, it is hardly to grab a smoking-related scene by simply typing the word “smoking” like we usually do by Google.

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