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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 fourth annual report looking at tobacco imagery in entertainment, “While You Were Streaming: Nicotine on Demand,” finds that as young people watched more video content than ever before in 2020, pervasive smoking and vaping imagery lit up their screens. Other findings include:

  • 60% of young people’s favorite new releases featured images of tobacco, including top shows depicting youth and teen tobacco, that are responsible for exposing an estimated 27 million young people to tobacco imagery in 2020.
  • 64% of the top binge-watched shows among young people included tobacco depictions, including the popular Netflix show “Stranger Things” — a top tobacco offender in the past.
  • Netflix was the top offender for the fourth year in a row, with 651 tobacco depictions in its 2020 shows
  • 38% of top-grossing movies released in 2020 depicted tobacco, including 10 youth-rated films such as the PG-rated “The Personal History of David Copperfield” according to an independent external analysis.
  • 23% of the top 2020 Billboard songs featured smoking and vaping in their music videos, amassing over 6 billion views on YouTube alone.


Previous streaming reports

[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

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