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In a new report, 12 of 13 surveyed TV shows most popular with ages 15-24 included tobacco images, according to anti-smoking group Truth Initiative.
Truth Initiative

On TV, where there’s smoke, there’s, well, more smoke.

Smoking depictions continue to rise on a group of television programs popular with young people – those most likely to take up smoking – according to the follow-up report to 2018’s “While You Were Streaming” study from anti-smoking group Truth Initiative.

Once again, Netflix’s ’80s period drama, “Stranger Things,” which returns for Season 3 Thursday, was near the top of the list, recording 262 of the 1,209 tobacco-related depictions counted on 13 targeted programs. The surveyed shows, chosen because they are the most popular with viewers between 15 and 24, include AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” and FX’s “American Horror Story.” (The survey examined the 2016-17 season.)

Netflix, whose “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “Stranger Things” and “OITNB” had the most tobacco-related depictions, is addressing the issue. In response to a USA TODAY inquiry about the study, the streaming service said it is enacting a policy that will make new projects aimed at young viewers “smoking and e-cigarette free” and will include smoking information in Netflix ratings.

In the new report, Truth Initiative found tobacco-related depictions in 206 episodes of the 13 shows had nearly tripled compared to their numbers in the first study, which examined those same programs during the 2015-16 season. 

The study counted all tobacco images – including cigarettes in an ashtray, in a pack or on a store shelf – but says 54% included the product in the character’s hand or mouth. Nearly a third of usage was by a main character. (“Kimmy Schmidt” jumped from 9 to 292 depictions, with a large part of the increase resulting from scenes in a store that featured a wall of cigarette products.)

More: Exclusive: Anti-smoking group says more cigarettes in streaming shows may lure younger viewers

Charlie Heaton, left, and David Harbour co-star in a scene from Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” (Photo: Netflix)

“I’m hopeful a second year of our report showing a situation that’s getting worse, not better, will have influence,” Truth Initiative President and CEO Robin Koval says.

Koval wants to see programmers, “particularly those in streaming media,” enact strong anti-tobacco policies. One existing example is a policy at Disney’s film division, which forbids smoking scenes in films rated G, PG or PG-13, except in the case of historical figures or if the activity emphasizes the negative consequences.

Screen depictions have a concrete effect: A U.S. Surgeon General’s report says youths exposed to smoking images are more likely to smoke, with those with the most exposure twice as likely to begin as those with the least.

The smoking rate among high school students has declined in recent years, from 23% in 2000 to 5.4% in 2017, according to a study sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. However, a 2018 report from the same organization found vaping on the rise with that age group.

Truth Initiative is particularly concerned about content from streaming services, which are not restricted by Federal Communications Commission rules, as broadcast networks are, or, in most cases, by advertisers who might object to running commercials in programs with smoking content.

“The growth of tobacco imagery on these popular shows is enabling content to essentially become the new tobacco commercial,” Koval says.  

Taissa Farmiga, left, and Sarah Paulson are among the many actors who have appeared on multiple editions of the FX anthology drama, “American Horror Story.” (Photo: Michele K. Short/FX)

Netflix says it will work to dramatically reduce smoking images.

“Going forward, all new projects that we commission with ratings of TV-14 or below for series or PG-13 or below for films, will be smoking and e-cigarette free – except for reasons of historical or factual accuracy.”

For new shows and films aimed toward older viewers, “there’ll be no smoking or e-cigarettes unless it’s essential to the creative vision of the artist or because it’s character-defining (historically or culturally important).” 

When contacted by USA TODAY about network shows that are cited in the study, ABC declined comment and FX and Freeform did not respond.

Although TV frequently showed smoking in its early years, Congress banned cigarette commercials in 1971 after the surgeon general and National Cancer Institute reported on the health and cancer risks. Over the following years, broadcast networks cut back on scenes with smoking and they now discourage smoking in shows, permitting it only when its use is condemned. 

Altria, which owns cigarette producer Philip Morris USA (Marlboro, Virginia Slims), says it denies all requests for its brands to be depicted in movies, TV shows and other entertainment media. Reynolds American, the parent of R.J. Reynolds (Camel, Newport), last year said it doesn’t pay for or encourage the placement of cigarettes in TV or movies.

If last year’s study was a wake-up call, Truth Initiative considers the follow-up a call to action.

“One of the most important things is to call on creators and producers to ensure future content does not include tobacco imagery. They’ve heard us. There’s been pressure from Congress,” says Koval, who also wants states to consider the matter when awarding tax subsidies for filming.

“They certainly have a role to play in rewarding those who do the right thing in terms of taking tobacco imagery out of their content.”

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