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Tobacco in Pop Culture

Why tobacco in pop culture is an important issue

Even as national smoking rates have declined to record lows, there has been a pervasive re-emergence of tobacco imagery in entertainment media and pop culture.

See our work on tobacco in pop culture

Despite federal law prohibiting paid tobacco product placements in movies and TV programming in 1998, tobacco imagery can still be seen on screens everywhere today — including movie, TV, streaming media, music video and video game screens — and at venues and events. Tobacco in any form of entertainment contributes to the normalization of smoking and vaping, and the expansion of the media landscape means that there are more opportunities for exposure.
These images have influence, especially among youth and young adults, who are uniquely susceptible to social and environmental influences to use tobacco. For example, research shows that higher exposure to tobacco imagery in movies makes youth twice as likely to start smoking, and a landmark 2020 Truth Initiative study found that exposure to tobacco imagery through episodic programming can triple a young person’s odds of starting to vape.

Glamorizing and re-normalizing smoking could threaten the progress the U.S. has made in decreasing tobacco use. With our deep knowledge of culture and how to influence it, we are confronting this issue with research, public education and community engagement efforts, including cutting-edge work on tobacco imagery in broadcast and streaming television, movies, music videos and video games.

While you were streaming

Truth Initiative has been tracking tobacco imagery on screens since 2018 with its first “While You Were Streaming” report which has sounded the alarm on the pervasive re-normalization of tobacco imagery in top broadcast and streaming shows.

Truth Initiative’s fifth annual look at tobacco imagery in entertainment, “While You Were Streaming: Tobacco’s Starring Role,” finds that among the 15 shows in 2021 most popular among 15- to 24-year-olds, 60% contained depictions of tobacco, showing no improvement from 2020 and effectively exposing 25 million young people to tobacco imagery.

Other findings include: 

  • 47% of top movies released in 2021 and available on streaming exposed an estimated 25 million young people to tobacco imagery, according to an analysis by NORC at the University of Chicago
  • Total tobacco instances in top streaming shows increased from 2020, with leading transgressors including Showtime’s “Shameless,” Fox’s “The Simpsons,” FX’s “American Horror Story” and its spinoff “American Horror Stories,” and Netflix’s “Big Mouth” and “On My Block.”
  • Analysis of the top 2021 Billboard songs revealed that 12.8% had 290 tobacco depictions total in their music videos – a decrease from 23% in 2020.

Previous streaming reports

[2021] While You Were Streaming: Nicotine on Demand - Tobacco remains rampant in the year’s most popular shows, movies, and music videos, fueling the ongoing youth e-cigarette public health crisis

[2020] While You Were Streaming: Straight to Vape - Pervasive tobacco imagery in popular shows poses new threat, making youth more prone to e-cigarette use

[2019] While You Were Streaming: Smoking on Demand - A surge in tobacco imagery is putting youth at risk

[2018] While You Were Streaming - Tobacco use sees a renormalization in on-demand digital content, diluting progress in broadcast & theaters

Take action

Take action and spread awareness of this issue by joining the Tobacco Free Screens Coalition led by Truth Initiative today. The Tobacco Free Screens Coalition works with local community agencies, and state and national partners to eliminate tobacco product use on screens.

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