Is Breaking Bad an Ad for Meth?



"Breaking Bad blamed for shocking rise in crystal meth usage," said the headline over a November 3 story in The Telegraph. The subhead explained that "a leading academic claims the critically acclaimed US show Breaking Bad 'instantly makes people curious' about crystal meth."

In a recent Vice piece, Max Daly debunks the claim that Breaking Bad, the excellent AMC series about a high school chemistry teacher turned meth maestro, made speed more popular in the U.K. Daly notes that "there is no 'shocking' rise of crystal meth use in Britain" and that a single academic's idle speculation is the only evidence that people are experimenting with meth because they want to be just like the tweakers on Breaking Bad. Here is how Ellis Cashmore, a professor of media, culture, and sport at Staffordshire University, explains this alleged phenomenon:

Although the show does not go out to glamorize the drug, its very inclusion promotes interest in that substance. The fact it is a central premise to almost the entire series would serve to boost this interest for people who perhaps had not encountered it before. One of the central protagonists, Jessie, played by Aaron Paul, is portrayed as a drug addict, and he is now a Hollywood A-Lister. He is a bit of a sex symbol. The fact this character who we grow to love is taking crystal meth instantly makes people curious.

We live in a hedonistic generation where people are seeking pleasure from various sources, and increasingly these are to be found in the most illicit forms. Even if a TV show, like Breaking Bad, portrays drugs in a negative aspect and showing its most destructive side, it will still appeal to somebody. Showing the horrendous impact of crystal meth can have a boomerang effect and cause curiosity among some viewers who might think "that must be good."

I'm not surprised following the success of Breaking Bad that we have news of a surge in the use of methamphetamine. The fact millions of people have watched the show and been entertained by it almost instantly glamorizes its subject matter, whether deliberate or not.

Cashmore's claim that viewers "grow to love" Jesse Pinkman makes me wonder if he has actually seen the show. I eagerly watched every episode and never felt anything remotely like love for Aaron Paul's character. Pity, disgust, and annoyance were my initial reactions, and even as Jesse matured and displayed a latent streak of decency, I found him less interesting than Walter White, Bryan Cranston's meth kingpin. But maybe that's just me. 

Daly rightly criticizes Cashmore's simplistic "monkey see, monkey do" understanding of how people react to popular entertainment (which is similar to the view of a Texas prosecutor whom Ed Krayewski came across last year):

If he's onto something, why hasn't Mad Men quadrupled the number of cigarette smokers? Why aren't we all street hustlers after watching The Wire? Surely the nation is awash with sword-wielding knights after four seasons of Games of Thrones? Luckily, the human brain, after the age of about ten, doesn't work like this. 

And if Cashmore is onto something, why didn't meth use in the United States rise during Breaking Bad's run? According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, past-month use of methamphetamine was less common in 2013, when the series ended, than it was in 2008, when the series started. Finally, if "showing the horrendous impact of crystal meth can have a boomerang effect," shouldn't we blame the government's absurdly hyperbolic anti-meth propaganda for piquing interest in the drug?

Breaking Bad may not have had a measurable effect on drug use, but it did have a noticeable impact on journalists, who like to imagine that life imitates art. A few days after The Telegraph claimed the show had created a fashion for speed, the Fox station in Colorado Springs sought to correct the notion that Breaking Bad created the drug itself. "Before 'Breaking Bad' even became a hit television series," Fox 21 noted, "meth labs and major drug busts were going on in Colorado Springs."

[Thanks to Judith Posch for the Fox 21 link.]

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  1. Is Mad Men an ad for booze?

    1. No, silly, it’s an add for the patriarchy!

  2. NO SPOILERS. I haven’t started it on Netflix yet.

    In fact, I don’t think I’ll read this post or any of the comments because I don’t trust anyone.

    1. Well, just a warning then. I haven’t watched it either. But everyone I know that did watch it have quit their jobs, started cooking meth, and become meth heads.

      The Chef makes the best glass. ‘Is that some righteous shit or not, Sanders?’

    2. It turns out Walter White has Cancer.

      1. And a birthday.

        1. And then another birthday. Oh and he trades his Aztek for a new car, then an old volvo.

          1. Turns out Ricin is bad for you, too.

            1. And now suddenly everyone is wearing and decorating their houses in shades of purple!

  3. After seeing King of Kings, the kids all went out and performed crucifixions. Poor Fluffy.

    1. And after watching The Crying Game, I immediately went out and bought a skirt.


      1. Dye it plaid and call it a kilt.

  4. The first time I heard about meth was in San Diego in the mid ’80s.

    The reason it was popular in San Diego was because the drug war was ramping up at the time, and so the days of your friendly neighborhood coke dealer were over. It’s not that affluent white people didn’t have a dealer anymore–it’s that his suppliers were pushed out of the supply chain by ruthless gangs in Mexico. He couldn’t get cocaine from across the border anymore.

    So meth was popular in San Diego because you could easily make it on the U.S. side of the border and skip the hassle of getting it through customs.

    The U.K. being an island, I bet it’s a lot easier to cook meth in the U.K. than it is to move cocaine through British customs, too.

    1. The U.K. being an island, I bet it’s a lot easier to cook meth in the U.K

      People are allowed to cook in the U.K.? Isn’t fire dangerous?

      1. They have to risk getting shot for cutting trees in the Queen’s forests to get the wood for the fires…

        /end bad joke.

      2. Cooking meth doesn’t involve a knife with a pointed end, so it’s safe!

    2. The ironic part of this, I guess, is that something like 2/3 of all US meth is smuggled in from Mexico these days.

      1. They have a lower cost base, so the cost of the infrastructure can be amortized over the whole volume, and still undercut local producers on price.

    3. Fortunately that also makes it easier to contain the Rage virus.

      1. “We can’t enact travel bans against Rage-infested countries as that would help the infection spread further, and thirty-day quarantines for aid workers are out of the question.” – The Administration.

      2. Definitely one of the scarier zombie movies.

        And don’t get all pedantic on me and tell me it’s not a zombie movie just because there’s no “death” before reanimation.

  5. Fuck, I watched a few episodes of the X-Files last night. Now I’m going to turn into Bigfoot, or a Chupacabra, or an alien-human hybrid. Goddamn you Hollywood!

    1. I’m immune to the X-Files, because as a Bureaucrat, I simply continue to exist as part of a government agency.

  6. I’m not sure how one can watch Breaking Bad, see what happens to Jesse over the course of the series, and say there’s anything that would make you want to use meth. Apparently the author here has less mental ability than my 5 year old, in that she has the ability to tell the difference between television and real life, a skill that the author apparently lacks.

    1. A few viewers might be tempted to take meth if they thought it would increase the odds that the likes of Jesse Pinkman could connect with the likes of Jane Margolis.

      However, the show’s portrayal of the “skank” in Season 2 Episode 6 should have pre-emptively disabused viewers of any such fantasy.

      1. When they had Krysten Ritter OD was when I stopped watching the show. Don’t take Krysten Ritter away from me if you want me to keep watching.

  7. Whoever wrote that cannot have watched the show. That’s all I can say.

  8. I never tried meth before I watched Breaking Bad.

    I still haven’t tried meth but I did enjoy the show.

  9. IKR! There are like 50 pizzas on my roof!

  10. Any increase in wheelchair-bound suicide bombers?

    *DING* *DING* *DING*

  11. You’re either a part of that culture or not. No one not in that culture is going to go out looking for meth aftet watching that show. If you’re in the culture and your not doing meth your not going to be influenced by the show to do so.

  12. I wouldn’t be surprised if DEA money helped produce BB.

    1. There was some DEA “help”, I have heard. Consultation and whatnot.

  13. See, you’ve got one part of that wrong.

    This….is not meth.

  14. I don’t know about making me want to be a meth user, but it definitely made me want to be a meth DEALER!!

  15. Pinkman’s crew had all their teeth and weight. Not very believable tweakers.

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