Netflix Under Fire For On-Screen Smoking

By Paul Fuhr 03/21/18

Among TV shows popular with teens and young adults, Netflix had the most portrayals of tobacco use.

The kids from Stranger Things
The hit series "Stranger Things" topped the list of shows with the most "tobacco incidents." Photo via YouTube

Streaming giant Netflix has been criticized for featuring more than twice as many scenes with tobacco use than its rival networks.

According to MarketWatch, the U.S.-based anti-smoking organization Truth Initiative analyzed the most popular series among viewers aged 15-24 across all broadcast and streaming networks.

The public health nonprofit found that Netflix showed 319 “tobacco incidents,” with the hit series Stranger Things topping the list with over 180. (Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards followed closely behind.)

“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 of Truth Initiative. “And while everybody was watching, but no one was paying attention, we’ve experienced a pervasive re-emergence of smoking imagery that is glamorizing and renormalizing a deadly habit to millions of impressionable young people. It has to stop.” 

The spike calls into question the responsibility that streaming providers bear—especially when it comes to the link between their content and research that suggests young people smoke when it’s depicted on the screen.

According to the Truth Initiative, 37% of “new youth smoking initiation in the U.S.” is spurred by impressionable young adults seeing smoking on-screen. It doesn’t help that 80% of the 14 most popular shows studied by the nonprofit depicted smoking, including the otherwise-wholesome Fuller House.

“The more tobacco imagery young people view on screen, the more likely they are to become smokers,” Truth Initiative argued. “This frames the alarming findings of the report: kids are seeing much more than we thought.”

Truth Initiative also echoed a report issued by the World Health Organization that called for “smoke-free movies.” 

And while the TV world currently undergoes scrutiny for its on-screen smoking, such criticisms are nothing new to the movie industry.

The Guardian reported in 2016 that “smoking scenes still regularly occur in movies deemed suitable for children,” with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finding that 47% of the previous year’s films rated PG-13 featured “at least one occurrence of smoking or tobacco use.”

The figure may continue to be on a downward trend in movies, but the CDC bemoaned the movie industry’s lack of oversight and responsibility with on-screen smoking. That said, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) argued that “prohibiting smoking imagery in films would amount to restricting free speech under the first amendment.” 

Interestingly, while the number of “tobacco incidents” has certainly spiked on the small screen, national smoking rates have considerably fallen in recent years.

In fact, the CDC found that smoking declined from 20.9% in 2005 to 15.5% in 2016, though the agency said that every day, 3,200 people under 18 will smoke their first cigarette.

What’s even more troubling, Truth Initiative believes, is that the majority of teenagers and young adults use their smartphones to watch streaming content, meaning that it’s not simply a matter of switching off the TV to shut down the habit.

“While streaming entertainment is more popular than ever, we’re glad that smoking is not,” a Netflix spokesman told Variety. “We’re interested to find out more about the study.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.