By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — When she was little, Amy Buhrmaster had a habit of combing her strawberry blonde hair with a fork.
It was a quirk she picked up by watching her favorite movie at the time, “The Little Mermaid.” It’s normal for young kids to pick up behaviors from relatable movie characters, animated or otherwise. But some aren’t as harmless as swapping a comb for a kitchen utensil.
“If Ariel was smoking, I probably would have wanted to do that, too,” Buhrmaster told a crowd of parents and children at a health-conscious movie-viewing event at Afrim’s Sports on Wednesday, Feb. 18.
Buhrmaster was perched on top of a handmade replica of the house at the center of the movie “Up” — a popular animated film whose characters never light up on screen. Student volunteers from Niskayuna High School and Albany County 4-H dressed as characters from the film milled around on an AstroTurf field, greeting children and posing for photos.
There were games, snacks and a screening of “Up” for kids and their families to enjoy while relaxing on the grass indoors, in spite of feet of snow piled outside.
But there was more to it than simple relief from the cold: The event’s organizers hoped it would help inspire awareness and change to prevent children from being enticed to smoke.
The screening was sponsored by Reality Check New York, a youth-led coalition funded by the state Department of Health. Before the film and during intermission, student volunteers encouraged parents to sign a petition asking the Motion Picture Association of America to assign films with smoking in them an “R” rating. Kids were included in the discussion, too, beginning with Buhrmaster’s personal introduction to the film.
Keysey Madden, youth engagement coordinator for Reality Check New York, hoped the signatures gathered that afternoon would become part of a flood of names directed at the MPAA during the week leading up to the Academy Awards, designated International Week of Action on Smokefree Movies.
Madden said she first became interested in anti-smoking activism while working with a much older demographic.
“When I was an undergrad, I worked in a nursing home where people smoked a lot,” she said.
She was troubled by the trend, and discovered she could help reverse it by targeting youth smoking. As the student volunteers at the event repeatedly reminded visitors, 90 percent of smokers begin their habit before they turn 18.
Bianca Siochetti, a Niskayuna High School student and Reality Check volunteer for four years, wore a shirt that read “90%” in honor of the statistic.
“We still have a long way to go,” she said.
Siochetti and the other Reality Check activists believe the first step in that long process could be changing the ratings of movies with smoking from G, PG, and PG-13 to R.
A surprising number of movies geared toward kids — examples include “Rango,” “Ratatouille,” “101 Dalmatians,” “Pirates of the Caribbean 2,” and “Superman Returns” — all depict characters smoking. An R rating would likely cause parents to think twice before allowing their kids to view the films.
Research backs up Reality Check’s activism.
“Youth who are exposed to images of smoking in movies are more likely to smoke; those who get the most exposure to on-screen smoking are about twice as likely to begin smoking as those who get the least exposure,” according to the executive summary from a 2014 Surgeon General’s Report on the health consequences of smoking.
“Actions that would eliminate the depiction of tobacco use in movies, which are produced and rated as appropriate for children and adolescents, could have a significant effect on preventing youth from becoming tobacco users,” the report continues.
Until official regulations catch up with government research, Madden and her dedicated group of student volunteers will continue to educate kids and their parents in creative ways.
“The events are the most fun part,” student volunteer Siochetti said.