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Top music videos are viewed billions of times on YouTube – and many glamorize smoking and vaping

Tobacco imagery in popular music videos has been on the rise, according to Truth Initiative’s sixth annual review of tobacco imagery in popular entertainment. The report found that twice as many music videos for the most popular songs, according to Billboard charts, portrayed tobacco in 2022 compared to 2021 (28% vs. 12.8%) and were viewed almost 7 billion times on YouTube as of October 2023.

Tobacco imagery has been stubbornly present in media most popular with youth, including music videos, despite years of research tying on-screen tobacco depictions with youth tobacco use. A Truth Initiative study found that exposure to smoking imagery in streaming shows can triple a young person’s odds of starting to vape, building on established research that smoking in films influences young people to smoke.

Separate research has also shown an association between exposure to tobacco content on social media and odds of tobacco use. The potential combined effect of exposure to tobacco imagery in videos on YouTube, TikTok, and other social media platforms should be monitored to ensure the safety of young people who use these platforms.

Since the last report, twice as many music videos feature tobacco

Analysis of the top 2022 Billboard songs revealed that 28% (60 of 212) of songs with music videos contained 462 depictions and were viewed almost 7 billion times. This is a dramatic increase from 12.8% of music videos containing 290 depictions and garnering 2 billion views in 2021. “Smokin Out the Window” by Anderson.Paak, Bruno Mars, and Silk Sonic and “El Incomprendido” by Farruko once again topped the list of music videos featuring tobacco imagery, with 109 and 55 incidents, respectively. “Smokin Out the Window” received 175 million views. These songs were followed by Nazareno by Farruko (with 39 tobacco depictions), “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” by Elle King and Miranda Lambert (27) – another holdover from last year – and “Heyy” by Lil Baby (15).

Continuing the trend from previous years, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop is the genre with the most depictions: tobacco made 265 appearances in nearly half (45%) of R&B/hip-hop music videos. Hot 100 came in second, with 31% of music videos and 81 incidents. Cigarettes remain the most popular tobacco product depicted, but music videos in 2022 featured 27 depictions of e-cigarettes, compared to only one in 2021.

Social media platforms provide a concerning avenue for tobacco exposure

Social media platforms like YouTube are an increasingly popular way for young people to access video content, with about nine in 10 U.S. teens reporting they use YouTube – making it the top choice for video content among young people. Music videos are often watched repeatedly on YouTube, which does not impose age restrictions, is easily used on a mobile device, and includes limited parental controls.  

More research is needed to get a clearer picture of how tobacco exposure on social media platforms like YouTube impacts young people. A Truth Initiative study currently underway seeks to determine if teens and young adults are exposed to tobacco content on YouTube, TikTok, and Twitch – three of the most popular user-generated content platforms with young people today – and finds that more than a third of respondents who used each of these platforms reported exposure to tobacco imagery.

More must be done to limit tobacco imagery on social media platforms popular among young people

With tobacco continuing to play a starring role in entertainment popular among youth, more needs to be done to urge decisionmakers at all levels – including entertainment executives, leaders of social media platforms and broadcast networks, directors, writers, actors, and musicians – to eliminate tobacco in entertainment most popular with young people.

The prevalence of tobacco imagery in gaming and user-generated content, which is eclipsing movies and streaming shows as the default at-home entertainment, also raises concerns and is increasingly difficult to monitor.

To address youth exposure to tobacco imagery, Truth Initiative calls for a comprehensive set of policies to curb tobacco depictions and educate actors and creators, as well as parents and young people. These actions include:

  • Developing policies that restrict studios from depicting tobacco use in youth-rated entertainment.
  • Including anti-smoking and anti-vaping messages in youth-rated entertainment that does contain tobacco.
  • Empowering actors to stand up against on-screen tobacco use in youth-rated shows and movies.
  • Increasing outreach and awareness that portraying tobacco on screen risks leading young people to smoke and vape.
  • Monitoring compliance with existing regulations that restrict or prevent shows and movies from portraying tobacco.
  • Modernizing ratings systems and parental controls to reflect the risks of on-screen tobacco use.