Researchers reviewed patterns in TV smoking over
more than 50 years and found that they tracked with changes in adult
tobacco use, suggesting that even established smokers are influenced
to light up by seeing it done on the small screen.
"Movie tobacco cues promoting smoking initiation in teens have been
extensively covered in the literature, but this paper emphasizes
that TV programming-promoted tobacco has been understudied and may
be important as well," said lead study author Patrick E. Jamieson of
the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania
An effective cue "should promote smoking initiation, reinforce a
current smoking habit and make it harder for smokers to quit," he
told Reuters Health in an email, and smoking on television appears
to fit that bill.
For the new study, Jamieson and a colleague noted instances of
tobacco use in prime-time TV dramas between 1955 and 2010. They
compared these numbers to U.S. adult smoking rates over the same
Over the 55 years studied, smoking in real life and on TV both
declined. Between 1955 and 1964 there was an average of almost three
tobacco appearances per hour in the primetime dramas, which declined
to less than one every three hours between 2001 and 2010.
For every additional tobacco appearance per hour of TV, the
researchers found, each U.S. adult smoker consumed about two more
packs of cigarettes per year.
Using an economic model, the authors determined that it was more
likely TV smoking instances were influencing real-life smoking
levels, rather than the other way around.
"The same-year TV tobacco portrayal predicted the same-year and the
following-year adult cigarette consumption," but there was no year
lag in the other direction, Jamieson said.
The declining appearance of tobacco on TV has happened alongside a
similar decline in movies, the authors note.
Cigarette prices increased steadily over the study period, which
also probably deterred some smokers. Decreasing TV portrayals of
tobacco use seemed to have about half the power of increasing
cigarette prices in discouraging smoking, according to the results
published in the journal Tobacco Control.
Cigarettes haven't been advertised on television since a 1971 ban,
but they continue to appear in the programming itself at producers'
Although the current study did not test whether showing cigarettes
on TV would directly influence viewers, the authors do theorize that
seeing tobacco on TV could trigger cravings in adult smokers.
Experts suggested that TV could be an important trigger, of which
both smokers and former smokers should be aware.
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"There is a concern that seeing smoking on TV may cause adults to
both re-start smoking after they have quit and keep them from
quitting," said Kristin Carson, senior medical research scientist
for respiratory medicine at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in
Adelaide, South Australia.
"Seeing someone else smoke has been reported as a trigger for many
smokers and ex-smokers," Carson, who was not involved in the new
research, told Reuters Health in an email.
Dr. Roger Thomas of the Department of Family Medicine at the
University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, agreed.
"This is a very strong study methodologically," he told Reuters
Quitting is often a long process with many relapses, since cravings
can be triggered by stress, said Thomas, who was not involved in the
study but administers tobacco counseling to his patients regularly.
"We advise people not to go to places where people smoke, to
avoid the stimulus," he said. "We know there are very strong
Of course TV viewers don't know when tobacco is going to show up in
their favorite programs, he said, but when it does, they should
avert their gaze, and always be aware of subliminal messaging.
"Given how powerful a tobacco control tool raising tobacco prices
is, I would like to see the tobacco prices continue to rise and
producers and writers continue to voluntarily portray less tobacco,
to not romanticize it, or if it is portrayed, show more of the
problematic consequences of using it," Jamieson said.
"From a public health perspective the complete elimination of
cigarettes from society altogether would be ideal," Carson said.
"However the reality, at least in the short-term, is that tobacco
use will continue to be a part of our society for as long as we
continue to allow it to be."
Tobacco Control, online April 3, 2014.
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