Quitting Smoking With Television


Frank and Claire Underwood sit in a windowsill. They share a cigarette as they plan their next move, smoke unfolding amid the chiaroscuro tableau.

The Underwoods’ open enjoyment of tobacco on House of Cards isn’t just notable as a frequent plot device: These days, smoking on television (or the Netflix equivalent of TV) tends to be very rare.

Researchers say this shift isn’t just a cultural phenomenon: American adults are smoking fewer cigarettes every year, and that might be linked to the decline in tobacco products on prime time, a new study claims.

Patrick E. Jamieson and Daniel Romer, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania who have studied extensively the relationship between media and risky behavior, argue in a new British Medical Journal (BMJ) paper that tobacco’s wan presence on TV might be tied to a per capita consumption decline among American adults—a drop of 38.5 cigarettes annually.

To conduct their study, billed as “the largest” of its kind by the BMJ, researchers watched some 1,838 hours of top American dramas broadcast between 1955 and 2010, tallying tobacco’s portrayal.

Tobacco use dropped from 4.96 times per hour in 1961, when it peaked, to .29 times per hour in 2010, the researchers found.

They compared that statistic with smoking rates among Americans during those same years. From this comparison, they determined that “one less tobacco event per episode hour across two years of programming” is associated with that nearly two-pack-per-adult yearly drop.

The calculation also takes into account rising cigarette prices over time. In other words, cigarette use drops at approximately the two-pack-per-year rate regardless of price-prompted decreases.

Though it should be emphasized that this paper points to a correlation between how much cigarettes are on TV and how much people smoke—a link rather than a direct, cause-and-effect relationship, that is—it’s not too far-fetched. Other studies have shown that smokers get cravings when they see people lighting up on-screen.

What the study doesn’t fully go into is why cigarettes are less prominent.

Wally Podrazik, television curator at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago, tells Newsweek that smoking was normal on TV during the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, part of a “natural, realistic portrayal of people.”

There were two main reasons for this: A lot of people smoked, and a lot of tobacco companies sponsored television shows.

“Not only was tobacco advertising all over,” Podrazik explains, “it was one of the foundations of television advertising support.”

Aside from the many talk shows where hosts and guests chain-smoked, a good example of this smoking naturalism is The Phil Silvers Show, often referred to as Sergeant Bilko. The show was sponsored by a cigarette company, so, “not surprisingly, the character of Sergeant Bilko often had a cigarette at the ready,” Podrazik says.

Sometimes, cigarettes were the main kernel of segments. One of the most beloved I Love Lucy sketches, for example, involves Lucy sporting a fake nose to disguise herself from a movie star—and the costume fails when the star lights her cigarette and sets her “nose” on fire.

When the ban on televised cigarette advertising took effect on Jan. 1, 1971, on-screen smoking took a huge hit. Yes, cigarettes were still present, but they weren’t omnipresent because producers had less incentive to tout tobacco products.

Over time, the role of cigarettes went from the quotidian to character-specific: People didn’t just smoke on TV but smoked for telling (and often negative) reasons, like the Underwoods.

Worth mentioning: Cigars don’t seem to carry the same stigma, from the 1950s (Danny Thomas on Make Room for Daddy) through the 1970s (the cigar-chomping detective “Columbo) and up to the present, with several characters on How I Met Your Mother portrayed as “comfortable” cigar smokers, Podrazik notes. 

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