Exploring the Influence of Culture and Media on Substance Use

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We are constantly bombarded by images and messages intended to influence us and grab our attention and our money in today’s world. It is inescapable. We are all affected by culture and media. They shape our beliefs and influence our tastes and behaviors. They can certainly have an impact on our attitudes toward substance use.

Culture impacts substance use.

Culture and cultural values affect our attitudes toward substance use and influence our risk of experimenting with drugs. Culture can sometimes be a protective factor against substance use. For example, in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, it was noted that higher ethnic identity was associated with lower past-month drug use among African American, Hispanic and Multiracial youth. In contrast, high ethnic identity among white youth was associated with increased risk (Zapolski, T.C.B., Fisher, S., Banks, D.E. et al. Examining the Protective Effect of Ethnic Identity on Drug Attitudes and Use Among a Diverse Youth Population. J Youth Adolescence 46, 1702–1715 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-016-0605-0).

People from cultures where substances such as tobacco, peyote and ayahuasca are revered and used as part of spiritual or religious practices may have a completely different view of these and other substances.  People from cultures that do not use psychoactive substances as part of their spiritual or religious practices may view substance use differently. There are some subcultures where substance use is discouraged based on religious beliefs.

American pop culture and media glorify and glamorize substance use.

A quick look around is all it takes to see the extent to which our pop culture and media promote substance use. From print ads showing beautiful people drinking alcohol to songs that glorify drug use to giant freeway signs advertising the local dispensary, we are flooded with messages that substance use is a way to relax, have fun and fit in. Unfortunately, many of the messages even promote substance use and addiction as glamourous, darkly and dangerously.

The alcohol and tobacco industries target adolescents and young adults.

Alcohol and tobacco use among adolescents and young adults is declining but rates remain high and marijuana use is rising. We have known that the tobacco and alcohol industries market to adolescents and young adults for a long time. This is particularly worrying since young people are high media consumers and preoccupied with identity and personal image, making them extremely susceptible to media marketing campaigns that play down the negative consequences of using these substances. There is evidence that these marketing campaigns can increase smoking and drinking in this population.

Are adults immune to the effects of media and culture?

While we know young adults and adolescents are highly susceptible to the media’s attempts to normalize and glamourize substance use, we cannot forget that adults are also vulnerable. Even though we know the dangers of substance use, it is still easy to fall under the spell of media and pop culture. This is evident in the popularity of the wine mom and beer dad culture.

Cultures send mixed messages around substance use.

On the one hand, our current culture seems to have more relaxed attitudes regarding substance use and it is glamorized and promoted, but there is still stigma and shame surrounding addiction and seeking treatment. Although we are making progress in this area as we learn more about addiction, many people still blame the person and consider addiction a character flaw rather than a disease. This shaming and stigmatizing can block people from getting the help they need.

Could there be possible benefits from more tolerant attitudes toward substance use?

The pendulum of cultural attitudes toward substance use has swung back and forth throughout history. Tobacco was once regularly used and people saw smoking as cool or glamorous, whereas now it has fallen out of favor. Alcohol use is ingrained in our culture now, but it was illegal for a brief time in history. Marijuana is legal for medical use in most states and recreational use in a few. Even a few years ago, this was unfathomable.

There can be some benefit to more relaxed cultural attitudes toward substance use. Marijuana can be used to treat seizures in some people, help with insomnia and nausea. There was once a great deal of research into the potential of some hallucinogens in treating psychiatric disorders. When these drugs were made illegal, the research was halted. Research has started again into some of these substances and showing great promise in the field of psychiatry. Ketamine once only thought of as a “party drug,” is now used to treat depression.

Another benefit of culture and media shifting American society’s overall attitude toward being more open to substance use is the gradual, slow lessening of the stigma surrounding substance use and making reaching out for treatment more acceptable. There is still a long way to go in this area, but progress is being made.

Your culture and the media you consume can impact attitudes toward substance use and treatment. At Casa Palmera, we understand this and make every effort to respect each patient’s unique cultural influences. Every detail from the serene setting to the nutritious food at Casa Palmera is designed to support your treatment and recovery. When your treatment is completed, we encourage you to stay in touch and get involved with our alumni program. Call Casa Palmera at (855) 508-0473 for more information.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.