Truth Initiative Smoking Imagery Study Sparks Change

July 17, 2019 10:07 am News Staff

Depictions of tobacco use in youth-rated broadcast/cable and streaming content rose by more than 379% during the past year, with Netflix's Stranger Things claiming the title of worst offender for the second consecutive year.

[teenage girls looking at a laptop]

That's according to an annual report released July 3 by Truth Initiative,(www.truthinitiative.org) a nonprofit organization focused on dissuading youth and young adults from using tobacco.

The report, titled "While You Were Streaming: Smoking on Demand," found that 92% of shows most popular with people ages 15-24 depicted smoking prominently during the 2016-2017 season compared with 79% that did so during the 2015-2016 season.

This second report found that about 28 million young people have witnessed tobacco use based on the estimated viewership of the 13 shows studied, with more than 200 tobacco incidents (i.e., an image of a cigarette pack or individual product) observed in programs rated TV-Y7 and TV-PG. This is a troubling development given that according to the surgeon general, youth with more exposure to tobacco in movies are twice as likely to begin smoking compared with those who have less exposure.

"Content has become the new tobacco commercial," said Truth Initiative President and CEO Robin Koval in a news release.(truthinitiative.org) "We're seeing a pervasive reemergence of smoking imagery across screens that is glamorizing and renormalizing a deadly addiction and putting young people squarely in the crosshairs of the tobacco industry. Streaming, broadcast and cable companies are giving the tobacco industry free advertising, and young people are paying the price.

Story Highlights
  • Truth Initiative has released a report indicating that depictions of tobacco use in youth-rated broadcast/cable and streaming content rose by more than 379% in one year.
  • The report "While You Were Streaming: Smoking on Demand" found that 92% of shows most popular with people ages 15-24 depicted smoking prominently during their 2016-2017 season compared with 79% that did so during the 2015-2016 season.
  • In response to the report, a Netflix representative told Variety that from now on, all new shows it commissions with ratings of TV-14 or below (and all films rated PG-13 or below) will exclude smoking and e-cigarette use, except for "reasons of historical or factual accuracy."  

"This report is a call to action to creators, producers, policymakers and the public to change the channel and take smoking out of the picture."

Netflix Response

For the second year in a row, Netflix, the most commonly watched streaming service among those ages 15-24, topped the list -- nearly tripling its number of tobacco incidents (866) compared with the previous year's report (299).

Top offender Netflix's Stranger Things saw a 44% increase in smoking from season one (182) to season two (262), with tobacco imagery shown in every episode.

Among other Netflix shows that saw an increase in tobacco incidents during their past two seasons were

  • Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt -- 292 tobacco depictions (up from nine),
  • Orange is the New Black -- 233 tobacco depictions (up from 45) and
  • House of Cards -- 54 tobacco depictions (up from 41).

In response to the report, a spokesman for the streaming service said in a statement to Variety:(variety.com) "Netflix strongly supports artistic expression … We also recognize that smoking is harmful and when portrayed positively on screen can adversely influence young people."

From now on, the statement noted, all new shows Netflix commissions with ratings of TV-14 or below (and all films rated PG-13 or below) will exclude smoking and e-cigarette use, except for "reasons of historical or factual accuracy."

In addition, the streaming platform's new projects with higher ratings will not depict smoking or e-cigarette use "unless it's essential to the creative vision of the artist or because it's character-defining (historically or culturally important)."

Finally, Netflix told Variety that starting later this year, smoking information will be included as part of its ratings on the service.

Additional Report Details

Truth Initiative researchers identified the most popular episodic programs through an online survey of 750 youth and young adults ages 15-24. They then viewed more than 400 episodes and 350 hours of that programming to document tobacco depictions. Each image of a cigarette pack or individual product was counted as a separate incident -- even if multiple packs or products were shown in the same scene.

For the 2015-2016 season, 210 episodes were coded for the presence of tobacco, including 73 episodes aired on Netflix and 137 episodes aired on broadcast or cable TV. The following season, a total of 206 episodes were coded, including 79 episodes on Netflix and 127 episodes on broadcast or cable TV.

And it's not just Netflix; main characters on other popular streaming shows such as Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Hulu's Gap Year also regularly smoke.

Meanwhile, tobacco incidents on broadcast and cable programming also increased dramatically, with tobacco imagery soaring 150% from season to season.

According to the report, top offenders on network, broadcast and cable TV include

  • Once Upon a Time -- 97 tobacco depictions (up from zero depictions),
  • American Horror Story -- 88 tobacco depictions (up from 15 depictions) and
  • Modern Family -- 79 tobacco depictions (up from 20 depictions).

The most common tobacco product identified across all programs and seasons was cigarettes, accounting for 73% of all depictions. During the 2016-2017 cable/broadcast season, 51% of tobacco depictions featured cigarettes, 22% featured little cigars or cigarillos, and 15% depicted hookah use.

Some good news: E-cigarette use is still rare in these shows, accounting for less than 1% of tobacco depictions. All such depictions were in Netflix shows; 10 were in Fuller House, two in House of Cards and one in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Still, the report warned, "although e-cigarette imagery is not pervasive, depictions may become more common given the recent 78% increase in e-cigarette use among high school students between 2017 and 2018."

Call to Action

With 61% of young adults reporting online streaming as their primary way of viewing episodic content, it's critical that reasonable guidelines be developed and implemented to help safeguard today's youth, said the report.

To support this effort, Truth Initiative renewed its call to action on several fronts:

  • States can change their film production subsidy policies to provide tax and other incentives for productions that do not promote tobacco use.
  • Policy tools such as the TV parental guideline ratings should include tobacco use when assigning ratings.
  • Content creators and distributors should ensure future content does not include tobacco imagery.
  • Age-appropriate anti-tobacco messages should air before and during any programs that include tobacco.
  • Future research should focus on the connection between tobacco in television and streaming shows and the likelihood that this exposure will spur tobacco use in consumers of this programming.

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Youth Tobacco Use Demands Stronger FDA Response, Groups Say
Proposed Policy Update Lacks Scientific Basis, Letter Warns

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