‘Very real public health threat’: Hip-hop music videos often depict tobacco, marijuana use

HANOVER, N. H. — Are hip-hop music videos a danger to the millions of young fans who enjoy watching them? According to researchers from The Dartmouth Institute and Johns Hopkins University, many very well may be. That’s because tobacco and marijuana products or imagery are regularly appearing in some of the most popular artists’ videos, and experts warn children could be more likely to adopt their idols’ unhealthy habits.

The new study is especially alarming, the authors say, because hip-hop topped rock as the biggest music genre in the U.S. in 2017. With its influence as powerful as ever, artists have the ability to impact the behavior of their youngest and most vulnerable fans through their own actions in their videos.

As an example, the hit DJ Khaled song, “I’m The One,” which also features Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Wayne, depicts individuals smoking cigarettes and using the vaping device KandyPen. The video has been viewed more than 1 billion times.

“While there is no doubt that hip-hop artists have made many positive contributions to social change — speaking out on issues like police violence against minorities — there’s also a history of showing regulated substances in hip-hop and other popular music. These depictions may affect fans’ attitudes toward smoking and increase the likelihood of smoking — particularly among young people,” says Kristin Knutzen, the study’s lead author and a research scientists at Dartmouth Institute, in a release.

For the study, the research team tracked corresponding videos for any song that landed on Billboard magazine’s weekly Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs list between 2014 and 2017. Of the 1,250 songs on the list, 769 had videos. The researchers watched each video and looked for any instance of individuals who appeared to be using cigarettes, vaping devices, or marijuana products. The percentage differed slightly each year, but was never less than 40 percent (in 2015) nor higher than 50 percent (in 2016). Added together at the time of the study, the number of times these videos had been watched in total topped 39 billion views.

On top of the finding, the authors say it was the main artists themselves seen flaunting the products in question exclusively in a third of the videos. They add that the prevalence of the products rose with the songs’ popularity.

“When young people, especially adolescents, see their favorite artists using tobacco products in music videos, they can begin to view them as normal in hip-hop culture, and they can begin to see themselves using them. They also could view them as less harmful then they are. That’s a very real public health threat,” says study co-author and Dartmouth Institute Associate Professor Samir Sonej.

As for possible solutions, the authors suggest better federal and state regulation of videos to help limit the prevalence of tobacco and marijuana products. Video websites like YouTube could also step up and ban music videos that promote the products, a rule that falls in line with advertising policies set by Google, YouTube’s parent company.

The full study was published on October 15, 2018 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.