Below is a letter I wrote today to the editor of a popular skateboarding magazine, regarding images I keep seeing that I believe portray pro-smoking messages. As a psychologist and father, I believe this is harmful and that people like magazine editors need to be more conscious of it. If I get a response I’ll be sure to post it (see published letter at the end).
May 9, 2014
Jesse D. Matthews, Psy.D.
Chester Springs, PA
The Skateboard Mag
Attn: Editorial Director
I’m writing to comment on the accompanying photo to your Dylan Reider interview, found here: http://theskateboardmag.com/2014/05/extended-dylan-rieder-web-interview/#.U2zqYNhOXIU, and the bigger trend I still see in skate magazines of glorifying smoking. I would add drugs and alcohol, but just want to focus on smoking for now. It’s 2014 and smoking hasn’t been “cool” in many years. In fact, smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the US, and it kills 480,000 Americans a year (http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/tobacco_related_mortality/index.htm#cigs). And if you smoke or know anyone who does, you know just how addictive it is. I’m not blaming you, skate mags in general, or the industry, but you do play a part in the choices kids make, so I believe you need to be careful about some of the messages you’re sending.
As background, I’m 36 years old and I have been skating for over 25 years. I’m also a father to three boys and a clinical psychologist. I don’t skate as much as I used to, but I’ll always love it and will never stop. I don’t smoke- and I never have, probably because my parents smoked like fiends and I couldn’t stand it. I want to state clearly that I’m not some conservative goody-goody who wants to censor your magazine or skateboarding culture in general. Not at all. In fact, the rebellious, “we do what we want when we want” nature of skateboarding is what drew me to it. I want kids to have fun and to experiment with different things in life. That’s part of growing up and what teaches independence, self-reliance, and self-confidence. Kids need to get away from their parents, to be able to make their own choices, and have opportunities to express themselves- without the rigid rules of school, restrictions of their parents, or the structure of mainstream sports. And I’m not on a crusade to stop people from smoking, though in my work I do try to educate people about the dangers of it. If people want to smoke, that’s their choice. And I know some kids will experiment with it no matter what, but they don’t need help from the adults in their lives in developing a belief that it’s a cool thing to do. I do a lot of work in substance abuse, and people tell me every day that they wish they never picked up a cigarette. Some will eventually quit, but most won’t.
To get back to why I’m writing, I do have a problem with all of the photos I see in magazines and online of skaters smoking. Yeah, many of them smoke, but in the example I gave of the Reider interview, it was obviously an arranged photo shoot and depicting it in this way was preventable. I don’t know that the photographer put the cigarette in his hand as a prop, if it was Dylan’s idea, or if he just happened to be smoking. From my point-of-view though, it was to project an image. Just to be clear, I’m not picking on Dylan at all. I’m sure he’s a good guy and clearly he’s a great skater. He may not have thought about this, and for that matter the photographer may not have either. This was just the photo that caught my eye and made me think to do something about it. As a parent and a psychologist, I know how impressionable kids are. They’ll see that photo and think, “Dude’s a badass!” If you want to project that, you can do it without the cigarettes. I hear kids at the skatepark, cursing every third word (like I probably did at 14) and talking about their favorite skaters or videos; saying rude things; and I see them smoking cigarettes and talking about weed and beer. I don’t usually say anything unless my kids are around, because I want them to have the space to experiment. Typically I just skate, maybe talk to a few other old heads, and laugh inside about some of the things I hear.
Again, I don’t want to eliminate anything from skateboarding culture, but I do think you should be more judicious about the messages you’re sending. I work with kids and they tell me all of the time who they look up to- mostly rappers, athletes, skaters, and so on. Some are positive people, or the kids are taking away at least a few positive things from them, but you have to admit that there’s a ton of negativity too. Any of these people, including you, are huge influences. We can only hope our kids will hold on to the positive, or that we can be bigger influences on their lives when it really comes down to it. As a father of boys, my biggest fears are that they will get hurt or arrested. I can’t control them, but I can do my part in helping them to be careful and to make better choices. I can also watch what I do in hopes that they’ll learn from me. You may not run full-page ads for Newport or Marlboro, but publishing some of the shots you do is pretty much the same thing. You may not choose to be role models, but you are, and we all play a role in shaping the next generation.
As an older skater, father, and psychologist, here are a few suggestions that I ask you to consider. First, when you do a photo shoot, don’t take photos of people smoking (or smoking weed, drinking, etc.). And if you do, don’t publish them. You have control over that. It’s the right thing to do, and as far as censorship, no one will ever know. And don’t just blur it out, because people will still get the idea! Secondly, ask your advertisers (board companies, etc.) not to give you shots of people smoking. You may have less control there, but again it’s the right thing to do. And lastly, if you have photos from a tour, contest, or some event, try not to use any with people smoking. You’re not solely responsible for kids smoking, and you won’t solely keep kids from smoking, but you can help. I urge you to step up and consider these changes for the sake of all of our kids.
Thanks so much for hearing me out. I hope you won’t censor me and you’ll publish this letter online or in your next issue. A response would be much appreciated.
– Dr. Jesse Matthews
**I sent versions of this letter to four magazines. One of them, Thrasher, published it (below):