A Report Says Shows On Streaming Services Depict A Lot Of Smoking, But What Can Be Done?


On-demand digital content services like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon have changed the way people watch TV. In the past, broadcast television meant weekend movies and daytime syndication. You could sit on your couch and take it all in, so long as you accepted other people’s program choices. But, now, you can binge full seasons of shows and access any movie you want whenever it fits your schedule, even brand new original films, like one of the more than 80 that Netflix will pump out in the next year (more than any studio in Hollywood). But even with all of this progress, there is one area where streaming services like Netflix, unfortunately, recall the past: on-screen smoking.

Young viewers are being exposed to considerably more images of people using tobacco via streaming than they are when watching broadcast.

Recent research from Truth Initiative® — the non-profit public health organization dedicated to making tobacco use a thing of the past — compared seven popular Netflix programs with an equivalent number of popular broadcast ones. Among shows most popular with 15-24-year-olds, 79 percent depict smoking prominently, and tobacco use is most prevalent among on-demand digital content options. For example, of the shows included in the study, the ones on Netflix had more than twice the number of tobacco incidents as the ones on networks like CBS, NBC, and ABC.

Broadcast and television shows examined by the study included 139 tobacco incidents, while Netflix has 319. The programs with the highest number of incidents in the 2015-2016 season included: Stranger Things (182), The Walking Dead (94), Orange Is the New Black (45), and House of Cards (41). These stats concerned Truth Initiative — because all these images of characters puffing a cig and chewing tobacco contribute to smoking among younger members of the audience.

“There has been a revolution in television that now encompasses a complex universe, including Hulu, Netflix and an emerging world of on-demand platforms,” said Robin Koval, CEO and president of Truth Initiative. “And, while everybody was watching, but no one was paying attention, we experienced a pervasive re-emergence of smoking across screens that is glamorizing and renormalizing a deadly habit to millions of impressionable young people. Content is the new commercial and it has to stop. This report serves as both a wake-up call and an opportunity for the streaming and television industries to understand the damage smoking imagery causes.”

Research supports these concerns. In a 2012 report, the Surgeon General broke things down and declared exposure to smoking in movies can cause young people to smoke. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention backed a solution: “Giving an R rating to future movies with smoking would be expected to reduce the number of teen smokers by nearly 1 in 5 (18%), preventing up to 1 million deaths from smoking among children alive today.”

“I find it fascinating that the percentage of movies or TV with smoking in them is higher than the national smoking rate. The amount of smoking in movies is not an authentic representation of real life, and it gives some young people the wrong impression that smoking is more prevalent than it actually is,” said Kat Wojsiat, a sophomore at Holy Cross Academy. “For example, my friends don’t turn to cigarettes when they are stressed, like you see in the movies.” Wojsiat, a Truth Initiative Reinvent the Reel grantee who is focused on raising awareness of smoking in movies and popular culture and advocating MPAA for R-ratings, recently shared these thoughts and others as a participant in the Kenneth E. Warner Series panel discussion on Tobacco in Culture: The Renormalization and Glamorization of Smoking.

Are streaming services intentionally cozying up to Big Tobacco? No. Does anyone remember when company memos released by the New York Times revealed Sylvester Stallone was paid $500,000 to feature Brown & Williamson cigs in five of his movies (including Rambo and Rocky IV)? This isn’t that. Times have changed thanks, in part, to bans on product placement. But intentions aside, a conversation is overdue. And the streaming giants get it.

Speaking with Variety back in March, a Netflix rep said: “While streaming entertainment is more popular than ever, we’re glad that smoking is not. We’re interested to find out more about the study.”

It’s an admission of awareness following the report and a step in the right direction. The next step is harder to say and will involve a complex conversation about balancing public good with the creative process. Not to mention corporations taking a look at what their attitudes are on these matters.

Disney is poised to venture into the streaming game (sans R-rated films) and there are also rumors that they may officially acquire FOX soon (assuming last-minute attempts to thwart it fall short). Disney banned the use of cigarettes in their films back in 2015. Would they push FOX to operate under those same rules? (The New York Times is wondering if that’ll be the case, too.) And will Disney reject content on their eventual streaming service that doesn’t fit in with their previously established view on cigarettes? Time will tell.

For those instances where companies aren’t yet ready to ban cigarettes on the screen entirely, Truth Initiative has a few suggestions that could make a difference such as deploying ratings and content warnings or looking to the business side of these things. So many productions rely on tax incentives to determine where they shoot. Should provisos be added that will impact those deals if smoking is a part of the productions?

Truth Initiative continues to educate on the implications of tobacco in streaming and is eager to collaborate with creators and distributors to ensure future content omits tobacco imagery. Obviously, the industry is aware of the problem, so what’s left but for them to do something about it?