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Smoking Habits Fall in Primetime TV, and in Real Life

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Ian Sanderson—Getty Images

While the cost of tobacco products has a large impact on consumption rates, new research suggests that less tobacco screen time could also be a contributing factor

The pairing of beautiful people in Hollywood and cigarettes has been blamed for glamorizing smoking. In the 1940s and ’50s, even cartoon characters like Fred Flinstone smoked on television.

We’re much less likely to see cigarettes in movies and television now, thanks to the 1964 Surgeon General’s report on smoking’s health risks and the 1970 Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which banned cigarette advertising on television. While it’s well known that the cost of tobacco products has a large impact on consumption rates, new research suggests that less tobacco screen time could also be a contributing factor.

Researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of the Pennsylvania watched 1,838 hours of primetime television dramas in the U.S. between 1955 to 2010, and recorded instances of tobacco products being depicted, including smoking, purchasing, and handling. Between 1961 and 2010, tobacco use on primetime TV fell from 4.96 instances per hour of programming to 0.29

When researchers compared rates of smoking on the small screen to that of the American population during the same period, they found a corresponding decline. In 1964, about 50% of Americans were smokers, compared to about 20% now. After normalizing for changes in cigarette prices and other influencing factors, results showed that one fewer tobacco scene per hour on TV over two years of programming could predict a fall of two packs of cigarettes per adult per year. The impact, the researchers say, is about half that of raising tobacco prices.

Despite the positive findings, we still see plenty of cigarettes and smoking on television (think Mad Men), which may be responsible for some continued smoking habits, since research shows that tobacco exposure cues cravings in adult smokers. The study, published in the journal Tobacco Control, also didn’t look at cable or YouTube, which could contribute to rates of smoking as well.

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