Is Glamorization Of Drugs In The Entertainment Industry A Worrying Trend?




There are two layers to the influence of the entertainment industry: The media it produces, and the people it produces. On the one hand is what we are shown through the lens of artifice. We are told that movies are fake, and so we know to disbelieve them. But they still stimulate our emotions. They still show us a form of reality and challenge us to embrace or reject it.

And then, there is the people. We are told that the people are real, and indeed there are human beings behind the social media posts and press junkets that follow in the wake of media.

But those people—or rather the images of them we are shown– are as manufactured as the movies, TV shows, albums, books, and podcasts that they produce. What are they teaching?

Today, we are going to explore how the entertainment industry makes drug and alcohol use appear cool and desirable. But first, let’s talk about why they do it.

Why the Entertainment Industry Depicts Substance Abuse

Even if Leonardo DiCaprio never snorted cocaine in the Wolf of Wallstreet, and even if John Travolta never shot up heroin in Pulp Fiction, people would still be snorting cocaine and shooting up heroin. Those things don’t happen because they are in the movies. They are in the movies because they’re part of life. Recreational substance abuse is foundational to civilization.

But that is far from the end of it. The entertainment industry is predicated on storytelling—the media it outputs are stories, but so too are the lives of those that it publicizes. How many times has a tabloid magazine promised a thrilling “next episode” in following the lives of the rich?

Both in and out of the media the entertainment industry produces, substance abuse is used as a shorthand for one character trait or another. It is sometimes depicted as an accessory to how someone spends their time—marijuana to show them relaxing, cocaine to show them partying, and so on. But it can also be used to show a character flaw by giving them an addiction.

Always remember that when you read a tabloid, they are unlikely to write about something as personal and ephemeral as how a celebrity feels or what opinions they hold. They will write about what they are doing, what they are consuming, and the glamorous people they’re with.

The Effects of How Drugs and Alcohol are Depicted

Imagine you are watching a movie and an alcoholic comes on screen. How do you know they are an alcoholic? Well, aa visual medium will usually use a visual shorthand to communicate that. They will stumble about, carry a bottle in their hand, and slur their words when they speak.

Next, imagine a cocaine addict. Chances are good that your first instinct was not so messy as the alcoholic. Most people would imagine a very American Psycho image of a cocaine addict: Well put-together, gainfully employed, and highly energetic. 

The limitations of a visual medium requires that if the entertainment industry wants to depict someone with a substance abuse problem, then it has to be represented in either or both a way people recognize, or a way that is obvious. 

The cocaine addict will usually be depicted as a stock trader because people recognize that image. The alcoholic will usually be a mess because it makes the issue obvious.

As a result, people who do not have direct experience with cocaine addicts or alcoholics will make two equally damaging associations: First, that a cocaine addict can be highly functional and productive. Second, that an alcoholic can only be a blubbering mess.

How Society Pivots Around These Depictions

Let’s leave cocaine and alcohol alone for a while and expand the scale of the discussion. Because there might come a day when alcohol is depicted as a functional addiction and cocaine is depicted as necessarily debilitating. The point is not to pick on the entertainment industry for lifting one substance up and putting another down (though that does its own damage).

The point is that no matter what the entertainment industry does, its depictions of drugs and alcohol will resonate as meaningful and real with the audience (given that the media is at all effective). It is almost impossible for the entertainment industry to avoid this.

So, what does that mean? Should the entertainment industry just avoid depicting drugs and alcohol altogether? No. That would just lead to all of it being stigmatized.

The Onus is on the Viewer

As much power as the entertainment industry wields, it is imprecise and disorganized. There are trends, whether it’s the tabloids treating people’s personal lives and episodes in a drama or certain addictions being depicted as better than others. But trends are less like the movement of an army and more like the movement of the wind: Powerful, but subject to change in a moment.

Much more direct and absolute is the power of you, the viewer. What you need to do is think critically about what you are seeing onscreen whenever you consume anything made by the entertainment industry. Remember that they are never showing you the whole world.

This might seem obvious to you. But really examine your expectations around drug and alcohol use. Do you have any notion that using certain drugs is more fun or more dangerous than others? Do you expect any specific demographic, like teenagers, to use certain drugs over others? Those assumptions can make you blind to reality easier than you might think.


We used the word “stigma” earlier to describe what would happen if the media simply didn’t depict substance abuse at all. Part of critical thinking is getting rid of stigma. There is a stigma against being wrong that makes people afraid to recognize when they have made an assumption. Don’t let that be the barrier that prevents you from recognizing a drug problem.

And if you need any help dealing with a drug problem, whether it’s yours or a loved one’s, visit our website: