Netflix To Rethink On-Screen Smoking In Effort To Reduce Harm To Youth

By Kelly Burch 07/12/19

Netflix had 866 instances of tobacco appearing on screen in 2016-2017, while broadcast and cable shows had 343.

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The streaming giant Netflix has announced that it will make efforts to reduce the depiction of smoking on screen after a report found that smoking had become more common in Netflix original shows that are popular with young people. 

Although smoking rates have decreased nationally, television scenes depicting smoking have increased. A report by the Truth Initiative found that 92% of shows in the 2016-2017 season showed smoking, up from 79% the previous year.

Netflix had 866 instances of tobacco appearing on screen in 2016-2017, while broadcast and cable shows had 343. The previous year, Netflix had 299 instances, while cable and broadcast had 139 instances. 

Impact On The Youth

The Truth Initiative report emphasizes that seeing smoking and tobacco products on screen can inspire young people to use tobacco themselves. 

“Analysis of peer-reviewed studies estimates that exposure to tobacco use in movies is responsible for 37% of smoking initiation among young smokers,” the report authors wrote. 

They continued, “The popularity of streaming combined with the pervasive rise of smoking in episodic content points to an emerging threat to a new generation of Young Americans.”

Up to 28 million young people have been exposed to smoking through the most popular programs. 

In response to the report, Netflix issued a statement to Entertainment Weekly saying that it will reconsider the use of tobacco and e-cigarettes on screen. A spokesperson for the organization said that Netflix needs to balance harm reduction with artistic expression and historical accuracy.

“Netflix strongly supports artistic expression. We also recognize that smoking is harmful and when portrayed positively on screen can adversely influence young people,” the spokesperson said. 

In the future, all projects with a rating of TV-14 (for shows) or PG-13 (for movies) will not feature smoking or e-cigarette use “except for reasons of historical or factual accuracy” Netflix said. 

“For new projects with higher ratings, 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),” the spokesperson said. “In addition, starting later this year, smoking information will be included as part of our ratings on the Netflix service so our members can make informed choices about what they watch.”

'Stranger Things' Tops The List 

Researchers for the Truth Initiative found that the popular Netflix show Stranger Things showed smoking more than any other program—in fact, every episode of the show contained images of tobacco use. The show stars a group of teens, many of whom are under the age of 18. 

Netflix was the primary focus of the report not intentionally, but because young people surveyed indicated that their favorite shows were mostly Netflix originals, the report authors noted. 

“While Netflix is the focus of this analysis because it is the platform for young people’s favorite streaming shows, it should be noted that the proliferation of tobacco imagery is not limited to Netflix,” they said. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.