Tobacco in Media
Tobacco Takes the Spotlight

Tobacco Takes the Spotlight

Truth Initiative’s fifth annual “While You Were Streaming” report analyzes tobacco imagery in popular entertainment and provides shocking statistics exposing how tobacco takes the spotlight across a myriad of platforms. We at Breathe California play a special role in this study as our youth provide the raw data for this report. Through our Smoke-free Screens Program, we give youth a voice and an opportunity to be involved in scientific data collection that is published in studies used to promote real change.

While we’ve known that tobacco imagery onscreen was likely having adverse impacts on youth, there is now evidence to support that. In 2020, Truth Initiative released a study published in Preventive Medicine that concluded exposure to smoking imagery through episodic programming can triple a young person’s odds of starting to vape nicotine. In addition, higher exposure to smoking in movies makes youth 2x more likely to use tobacco (Truth Initiative, 2023). Despite encouragement by anti-tobacco agencies and non-profit organizations, the industry has been resistant to making any significant changes and adopting robust anti-tobacco policies.

Numbers do not lie when it comes to just how much tobacco use youth are exposed to. During 2021, 60% of the top newest 15 TV shows amongst young people (between the ages of 15-24 years old) contained tobacco imagery, with an estimated 25 million tobacco depictions. Desensitizing youth to tobacco use and advertising tobacco products to the masses through media are tactics used by Big Tobacco to secure future nicotine addicts. In 2019 in an effort to combat these conniving tactics, 9 mainstream media platforms such as Netflix and Disney signed a pledge to eliminate tobacco imagery in popular youth tv shows. Disney has made strides in going tobacco-free as seen in the latest tobacco-free version of Pinocchio, starring Tom Hanks. The popular hit animated show Bob Burgers eliminated tobacco completely. The pledge was signed but it was never made public. It is the small victories of networks and shows beginning to take a stand against tobacco that create lasting change and help to rewrite the narrative for our youth.

On going efforts to educate the industry and provide substantial evidence that smoking on screens is detrimental, lands on deaf ears. To date, there are no industry wide standards set to limit youth exposure to tobacco. So where do we go from here?

A panel of highly regarded leaders on tobacco control convened during the newest installment of Truth Initiative Impact Series to discuss the findings of tobacco imagery on screens and current efforts being made.

To listen to the discussion, please visit

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