Cigarette Smoking in the Media

4 min read
Source: 15299 / Pixabay


Source: 15299 / Pixabay

I am continually amazed when watching the latest shows and films that cigarette smoking remains so commonplace. The US Master Settlement Agreement (1998) prohibits tobacco companies from explicitly marketing their brands in media using paid product placement. Nonetheless, the general act of smoking remains pronounced in the media.

Perhaps unknowing to film makers, this is a form of brandless product placement. As such, it is an insidious form of marketing of smoking in general to viewers. Continuing to light up cigarettes in TV and film perpetuates beliefs about the “sex appeal” of cigarette smoking, especially because these portrayals rarely focus on the harms from smoking. Further, it can normalize smoking in present popular culture.

Why do characters in modern media still smoke?

The continued existence of smoking in the media occurs despite the decline of smoking in the world’s population.1 There has been an ongoing debate between the film industry, regulators, and researchers about whether smoking still has a place in the media. While individuals in the film industry have argued that depicting smoking is a form of artistic freedom, the negative impacts on public health have been demonstrated in a number of research studies. It is important for this influential industry to carefully consider the impacts of their artistic freedom on public health, including the health and well-being of youth.

What are the impacts of smoking in the media?

Research has long established that media portrayals of smoking reach youth and are connected to their views about smoking and their use of cigarettes. The linkage between cigarette smoking in film and youth smoking was previously supported in a pivotal review of 40 studies.2 Now, more than 20 years later, research has estimated that more than 5 million youth in the US are exposed to tobacco marketing through television, streaming services, or movies.3 This equates to about 1 in 5 youths in the US.

What has been done to reduce the impacts of smoking in media?

In light of these findings, it is not surprising that in 2018, the US Surgeon General went as far as recommending that any film that depicts cigarette smoking should be rated R by the MPA. As you may have guessed, this recommendation has not been put in place.4 The MPA has implemented warnings on some media related to smoking-related content. The MPA takes into account the presence of cigarette smoking and how it is depicted (e.g., the era and the extent to which it is glamorized) when making its ratings and warnings. But the use of cigarette warnings is not uniform. For instance, the series opener of Wilderness (rated 16+, which is lower than the legal age of smoking) begins with a warning about alcohol use in the upper left hand corner, but does not refer to the recurrent cigarette smoking in the series. In fact, it has been estimated that 6 of every 10 movies rated PG-13 depicted cigarette smoking or other tobacco use.5

How can we be informed consumers of smoking-related media?

As we are in a situation where adequate warnings about smoking are not uniformly in place, it is critical to be informed consumers of this content. This not only applies to our own consumption of media portrayals of smoking, but how these portrayals can impact people in our lives. Here are some examples of what I think this can look like:

  1. Reflect on instances of cigarette smoking in the media, rather than consuming this media passively. The extent to which this content can be critiqued and reflected on will reduce subliminal messaging and allow for a more active processing (and hopefully rebuttal) of this content.
  2. When watching media containing cigarette smoking with young people, follow up with discussions about what they took away from this content and provide education about the harmful effects of cigarette smoking.

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