Cigs, drugs stir divided panel

Industry leaders meet to discuss substance abuse portrayal in media

Several entertainment industry toppers agreed Thursday that portrayals of substance abuse are common in the media, but most butted heads over what, if anything, to do about it.

“The short answer is that I don’t know,” admitted Motion Picture Assn. of America chief Jack Valenti to a packed house inside Simi Valley’s Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. “But I have the right to make any movie I choose, and I also have the right not to go see it.”

The group, which included Recording Industry Assn. of America CEO and prexy Hilary Rosen, was brought together to respond to a recent Stanford U. study that damns Hollywood for negatively influencing kids with its drug references.

1st Amendment friend

Strangely enough, Tinseltown’s ratings czar was the most vehement about leaving creative types alone in their film, TV and music work.

“Directors say that (getting rid of cigarette or drug use) would disrupt the dramatic narrative they have going,” Valenti said.

When Julia Roberts smokes in a film, he said, that’s an example of “character definition” and shows that she’s “nervous and neurotic.”

But film critic Michael Medved couldn’t disagree more. “You can take away cigarettes and it won’t harm the core substance of the material,” he said.

Dangers of imitation

And this couldn’t be more dangerous, he added, because “people do imitate what they see on screen — right now, Meg Ryan’s hair is getting imitated around the country (because of recent release “Hanging Up”).

Medved also sounded off on an upcoming awards bash, sponsored by magazine High Times, that will honor the best portrayals of marijuana in film. He noted Oscar hopeful “American Beauty” was the mag’s front-runner.

Yet the RIAA’s Rosen backed up Valenti and likewise shook her head at the study’s results.

“I don’t know what makes a young person do anything. There’s no question that many of them associate the outside culture with their lifestyle, but I also think that young people are a lot smarter than we give them credit for.”

Other panelists at the discussion, sponsored by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia U., were Malcolm-Jamal Warner of TV’s “Malcolm and Eddie” and founder of the National Political Congress of Black Women C. Delores Tucker.

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