TV and Tobacco: A Dangerous Match

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Young man hiding behind a pillow while watching a television show.

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It’s become more and more common to see characters smoking in TV shows that are popular with teens. That isn’t good news. A lot of research has found that for young people, there’s a connection between watching tobacco use onscreen and starting to smoke.

In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General found that people ages 12 to 17 who saw more examples of tobacco use in movies are twice as likely to start smoking, compared with those who saw fewer examples.

We aren’t yet sure if images of smoking also affect teens watching TV, but we do know smoking scenes on TV have been increasing.

More shows, more smoking

Now that we can stream TV shows online, there are more ways than ever for teens to see characters smoking. Research has found that 61 percent of young adults say they mainly watch TV using streaming services.

A study found that the most popular series for people between ages 15 and 24 on one streaming service showed more characters who smoked onscreen than shows on “regular” broadcast TV.

Broadcast and cable TV programs also showed more characters smoking in 2019 than they showed in 2018. In fact, these programs showed nearly two and a half times more tobacco images in 2019.

Based on the number of viewers these programs had, this means that about 28 million young people saw tobacco used on broadcast TV and streaming programs—just in these most popular shows.

A new attitude

Some of these trends may be starting to change. The streaming service mentioned above has said it won’t show smoking or e-cigarette use in new shows rated TV-14 or below, or in movies rated PG-13 or below (except for “reasons of historical or factual accuracy”).

The service will also show less smoking in shows that have higher age ratings.

But…whatever the amount of smoking you see on TV, it’s important to be aware of the TV/tobacco connection. Remind yourself that—even if you think a character looks cool when they smoke—what happens to your brain and body when you smoke isn’t cool at all.

Learn more: Why is tobacco so addictive?

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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