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The new tobacco commercials: 92% of young people’s favorite shows contain smoking

Tobacco use rose in young people’s favorite TV shows, with popular streaming programs like “Stranger Things” and “Orange Is the New Black” increasingly showing images of tobacco and portraying characters who smoke.

Research links exposure to on-screen smoking with an increased likelihood to start using tobacco among young people. Truth Initiative® first reported on the issue of smoking in TV in 2018 with the report “While You Were Streaming,” which analyzed depictions of tobacco and tobacco products — including cigarettes, little cigars or cigarillos, hookah and e-cigarettes — in Netflix and cable/broadcast shows most popular with young people and found that 79% of shows contained tobacco imagery. The new follow-up report, “While You Were Streaming: Smoking on Demand,” shows that tobacco imagery increased on the small screen in two ways: the number of shows featuring tobacco imagery and the amount of depictions in each show.
This pervasive rise of smoking in shows combined with the popularity of streaming content points to an emerging threat to a new generation of young Americans. 

Number of popular shows containing smoking up 16%

According to the new report, 92% of the shows analyzed contained images of tobacco in the 2016-17 season, up from 79% in the 2015-16 season. Sci-fi series “Stranger Things” showed the most tobacco overall, with 100% of the show’s episodes including tobacco.
To find the most popular shows among young people, researchers surveyed 750 youth and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 and identified 13 shows: “Orange Is the New Black,” “Fuller House,” “Stranger Things,”  “Daredevil,”  “House of Cards,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “The Walking Dead,”  “Modern Family,” “American Horror Story,” “Bones,” “Once Upon a Time,” and “Pretty Little Liars.” (Researchers examined the same shows for the first report in 2018, but dropped the non-scripted show "Making a Murderer" and only compared the 13 most popular scripted shows in the new report.)

About 28 million young people were exposed to tobacco through these most popular shows alone, the report estimates. The rise of online streaming platforms has created even more opportunities for exposure to tobacco imagery. According to the Pew Research Center, 61% of young adults report online streaming services as the primary mechanism for viewing episodic programs. 

Tobacco depictions doubled from the previous year

The number of tobacco depictions increased for Netflix and cable/broadcast shows — in fact, it more than doubled from 438 depictions to 1,209.
Overall, the number of tobacco depictions increased in 10 of the 13 programs sampled between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. Additionally, the most common tobacco product identified across all programs and seasons was cigarettes, accounting for 73% of all depictions.

The report’s findings also confirmed a 176% increase of tobacco depictions overall and a 379% increase of tobacco depictions in youth-rated programs when compared to the previous year’s data.
In both the previous and current analysis, Netflix programs displayed more tobacco depictions than programs aired on broadcast or cable TV. Netflix showed 190% more tobacco in 2016-17 and cable/broadcast shows depicted close to 150% more tobacco between the two seasons.

Findings call for renewed pressure

Research shows that exposure to smoking on screen is linked with an increased likelihood to smoke among youth. For example, exposure to tobacco use in movies is responsible for 37% of youth smoking initiation in the U.S., according to a meta-analysis of peer-reviewed studies. It is reasonable to conclude that exposure to tobacco use in TV has a similar impact on smoking behavior.

While the broadcast TV and movie industries have made progress in reducing the amount of tobacco imagery young people are exposed to, those gains may be weakened by online streaming content.

“The stakes are unacceptably high,” the report states. “We cannot allow young people, who are already the most vulnerable to initiate smoking, to continue to be inundated with tobacco imagery.”

Truth Initiative suggests several measures to protect young viewers from exposure to tobacco imagery, including working more closely with program creators, enforcing stricter ratings systems, airing anti-tobacco ads, changing state subsidy policies and conducting additional research on exposure to tobacco use on TV.

Read the report here.