Drugs & Health Blog

Does Smoking on TV Influence You?

Sara Bellum

The Government banned cigarette commercials on television in 1970 after the 1964 Surgeon General’s report found that smoking cigarettes increased your chances of getting lung cancer.  This was a big deal, considering the strong smoking culture in the United States at the time.  However, this ban didn’t stop smoking on television. Forty-years later, characters on television shows continue to smoke.

And, what if we told you that teens are one of the primary audiences for some of those shows?

Researchers from Columbia University and Legacy (formerly the American Legacy Foundation), an anti-tobacco group that produces the “Truth” anti-smoking ad campaign, teamed up to find out how often tobacco use shows up on TV shows popular with teens.  The shows included:

“Gossip Girl,” “Heroes,” “American Dad,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Family Guy,” “House,” and “The Simpsons.” They also looked at reality shows like “America’s Next Top Model” to measure depictions such as smoking, or even showing a pipe or pack of cigarettes on screen.

TV Shows Still Smokin’

Researchers watched every episode of the season. Of the 73 episodes in the analysis, 40 percent contained at least one depiction of tobacco (mainly cigarettes), double the rate from a similar study 10 years earlier. In all, there were 271 depictions, which worked out to an average of 4.4 depictions an hour.

Published in February 2011, the researchers concluded in their study:

Substantial tobacco use was observed in television shows popular among youth. It is projected that almost 1 million youth were exposed to tobacco depictions through the programming examined. Tobacco use on television should be a cause for concern, particularly because of the high volume of television viewing among younger audiences.

Other research on the connection between hours spent watching TV and young people taking up smoking, it was found that tweens and teens who watched 5 or more hours of TV each day were almost six times more likely to take up smoking than those who watched less than 2 hours.

Why Does It Matter?

Seeing other teens and young adults—celebrities, entertainers, and musicians—smoking can make it seem “cool” or popular. In fact, tobacco companies are counting on it and have invested a lot of time and money to find out the best places to reach teens. Just because the tobacco companies are banned from showing commercials on television doesn’t mean they can’t influence the content of TV shows in other, more subtle ways, or use other tools to influence smoking behavior.

Fortunately, NIDA’s 2011 Monitoring the Future survey of 8th, 10th and 12th graders found that smoking is decreasing to historically low rates among teens, so it appears most young people are smarter than the tobacco marketers had hoped.

Which Program Had the Most Smoking-Related Depictions?

Meanwhile, can you guess which primetime program that the Columbia University and Legacy researchers studied showed the highest incidence of smoking-related depictions? Was it (a) “Gossip Girl,” (b) “Heroes,” or (c) “America’s Next Top Model”? If you picked (c), the reality-based show “America’s Top Model,” you got it right.

Kind of ironic that a show about being beautiful and glamorous shows young girls using an addictive product that eventually will make their teeth yellow, cause premature wrinkling, and possibly lead to cancer, emphysema, or heart disease—none of which is very glamorous!

What do you think about depictions of smoking on TV? To answer the question, you can either write your response in the “Leave a Reply” box below or send us a message. As always, we read all comments and consider all feedback! We look forward to hearing from you.

To learn more about the effect of product placement on teens, check out Drugs: Shatter the Myths.

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.


TV and cartoons/shows should not show smoking.If you think about it their basically advertising something that injures your lungs mouth etc. If their advertising smoking why dont they advertise other things like drugs that would not make a difference because they are BOTH HARMFUL to your body.

No it doesn't because most of them all are wired and make dumb choices and get ugly and I wouldn't want to be like that
TV shows shouldn't have/show smoking. Why do they advertise smoking when people know it is very bad for you? They cause lung cancer, wheezing, a severe cough etc. There is also thousands of people that die each year just because of smoking so I think TV shows should advertise smoking.
Shows can really influnce young teens and by showing charaters/people smoking it might make young veiwers want to try it for themselfs. I think its not right to advertise something so bad and harmful to the body to young kids/teens on there favorite t.v. shows.
Showing advertisments of ciggarette smoking can influence teens and adults to try smoking. It's better to show advertisments on the dangers of smoking so this influences people to not smoke and scares kids into thinking I am not going to do this. Overall, people should not show advertisments on smoking unless it's the dangers of smoking
Smoking on tv does influence young teens because if it is shown on tv, then it must be ok to do it. I don't understand why people on tv show smoking because it is very harmful to the body and is just wrong in the first place. The more kids see people on tv smoking, the more likely kids will start smoking. I hope that tv cuts out all the smoking shown.
Tv is a bad I fluence you could ask for and adults too they tell us not to do drugs but here they are doing them!!!!
Tv shows and movies should be banned from showing cigarette smoking. It promotes cigarettes as cool despite decades of knowledge proving it's deadly.

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