Netflix Pledges to Curb Smoking in Upcoming Original Shows
Viewers are questioning why smoking should go, but not other ‘vices.’
The streaming service Netflix has announced its intention to cull depictions of smoking from its upcoming shows, and stub it out entirely in future original content aimed at the under-14 crowd. The move follows the release of a study that has found depictions of tobacco use in the most popular TV shows among young people surged nearly fourfold in the past year. Netflix shows were among those studied.
“For new projects aimed at 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),’” Netflix said in a statement, reports Deadline.
For children’s and tween entertainment, Netflix also allowed itself a “historical and factual accuracy” caveat, adding in the reported statement that “…smoking is harmful and when portrayed positively on screen, [it] can adversely influence young people.”
Additionally, as part of its age-appropriate ratings, Netflix will include smoking warnings so viewers are able to make informed choices about what they watch, according to the reported statement.
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The study, While You Were Streaming was conducted by the Truth Initiative, a nonprofit public health organization. It found a total of 1,209 tobacco depictions in episodic programming between 2016 and 2017; 866 of these depictions were on Netflix — 292 on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, 252 on Stranger Things and 233 on Orange Is The New Black. The remaining 343 were observed from other broadcast and cable programming combined.
The researchers defined ‘depictions’ as everything from cigarettes in an ashtray, to packs on a store shelf, but about 54% of depictions featured a cigarette in a character’s hand or mouth.
The programs were not selected at random: Truth Initiative studied shows most popular with young people between 15 and 24 years old, determined by an online survey. Netflix shows studied included Orange Is The New Black, Fuller House, Stranger Things, Daredevil, House of Cards and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Broadcast and cable shows studied, also selected for popularity among young people, included The Big Bang Theory, The Walking Dead, Modern Family, American Horror Story, Bones, Once Upon a Time and Pretty Little Liars.
Based on this list, researchers concluded that onscreen tobacco depictions had increased over the previous season and that approximately 28 million young people were exposed to tobacco through these popular shows alone, as per Deadline.
The research also found that e-cigarettes accounted for fewer than 1% of tobacco depictions. But here again, Netflix was the primary offender. It accounted for all depictions of e-cigarette use, including 10 on Fuller House, one on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and two on House of Cards.
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While one could measure Netflix’s decision based on any impact it will actually have on youth and their smoking patterns, it might also be worth looking at the fact that filmmakers and directors of series might see this as a restriction of free speech and an obstacle in the way they perceive art. Viewers are already questioning the move, if the comments section of the Variety article reporting the change is anything to go by: “This is so bizarre. Of all things, why is the depiction of smoking so touchy to some people? Murder, rape, war, robbery, assault, etc. are bad things, but we’re not like ‘You can’t show that onscreen.'” “WT* is this nonsense,” asks one commenter. Another quips, “But smoking is still a thing people do, why erase that fact?” And “Amen! War, murder, mayhem, drinking, drug-taking, and depravity of every kind is fine, EXCEPT ONLY smoking! Everyone knows smoking is the source of all evil in the world.”
Smoking may not be the source of all evil, but per the Truth Initiative study, 37% of smoking initiation among youth is due to media depictions of tobacco. And per a New York Times report of a 2017 study, the more smoking kids see on screen, the more likely they are to smoke. It revealed that younger adolescents who are more heavily exposed to smoking on film are two to three times as likely to start smoking, compared with kids who are less exposed.
“The evidence shows it’s the largest single stimulus,” for smoking, the lead author of this earlier study, Dr. Stanton Glantz, a professor and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at University of California, San Francisco, told the New York Times. “[Tobacco depiction onscreen] overpowers good parental role modeling, it’s more powerful than peer influence or even cigarette advertising.”
Anubhuti Matta is an associate editor with The Swaddle. When not at work, she's busy pursuing kathak, reading books on and by women in the Middle East or making dresses out of Indian prints.