Hollywood has long been held responsible for helping hook America on cigarettes, but now it may be helping people kick the habit. Less adults are reporting being smokers and a new study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania says a reason for the decline may have a strong correlation to how much smoking is depicted on television.
The study analyzed thousands of hours of television shows from all decades since the 1950’s and counted the number of smoking instances up to the year 2010. The comparison was stark . In 1961 there were just under five depictions of tobacco use per every hour of television, while in 2010 the number had dropped to 0.29 instances. The Annenberg researchers concluded that, per person, Americans smoked 39 less cigarettes per instance of tobacco use on television.
Tobacco companies invested heavily in early movie stars to push cigarettes. Starting in the 1920’s, some of Hollywood’s most glamorous actors were collectively offered hundreds of thousand of dollars from tobacco companies in endorsements, and as a result smoking quickly became prominently featured in popular entertainment. Almost 200 actors including famous names like Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, John Wayne and Joan Crawford were paid thousands to appear in ads and smoke on screen.
As television grew in popularity, tobacco companies moved much of their advertising dollars to the new medium. Television shows were sponsored by brands like Lucky Strike and Viceroy and the actors would often personally pitch cigarettes directly to their viewers. Smoking on television peaked on television in the early 1960’s and at the time the smoking rate among U.S. adults was estimated at 42.4 percent.
Researchers from the Annenberg Center watched over 1800 hours of the top rated dramas from the 1950’s through 2010. During that period, the tobacco companies were prohibited from sponsoring shows and in 1971 no tobacco company could advertise on television or radio. As more studies came out proving negative affects, smoking continued to decline in Hollywood productions and by 2010, smoking on television was comparatively rare. During the same time smoking among Americans also declined to 19.3 percent of the population, less than half of 1960’s level. Annenberg researches believe, as television had promoted use, it was a big reason for its reduction. “TV characters who smoke are likely to trigger the urge to smoke in cigarette users, making it harder for them to quit,” lead author Patrick Jamieson told The Hollywood Reporter.
An anti-tobacco attitude began to reach into other parts of the entertainment business. The Motion Picture Association of America decided in 2007 to give higher ratings to films that glamorized or had pervasive smoking and Universal Studios began placing a health warning on any of its films that featured smoking. Cartoons from the 50’s and 60’s that had characters smoking were digitally altered before being shown to modern audiences.
Many other factors likely contributed to the decline. In 1965, warning labels were required on all tobacco packaging and the 1971 ban on television and radio advertising was expanded to magazines and billboards. Taxes have been consistently raised, making costs prohibitive, and anti-tobacco education has been expanded throughout the country.
One potential problem with the study is the fact it only monitored prime-time television. Channels like HBO with its adult-oriented original programming or AMC, featuring shows like the tobacco-saturated Mad Men, were not included. Nevertheless, the researchers argue Hollywood still is one of the biggest reasons smoking has declined to historically low levels. As U.S. society continues to turn anti-tobacco, it is likely smoking will continue to play a smaller and smaller part in television and movies.
Commentary by Andrew Elfenbein