Smoke Screens: Netflix the Worst Offender in Streaming Tobacco Use

  • “Stranger Things” had 182 tobacco incidents in its most recent season
  • 16.5% of African-American adults in the U.S. are smokers

Tobacco companies have a long documented history of exploiting movies and TV to push their products. It seems as though streaming platforms like Netflix (NFLX -6.22%) have taken up the mantle with its pervasive use of tobacco imagery. What responsibilities should streaming content providers have when it comes to exposing viewers to smoking?

Why This Matters: The U.S. surgeon general has previously found on-screen smoking in movies causes people to take up cigarette use. A new report from the antismoking nonprofit Truth Initiative shows “Stranger Things” had 182 tobacco incidents, followed by “Orange Is the New Black” with 45 and “House of Cards” had 41 in their last season.

There are big questions about whether tobacco companies are pushing their products through streaming services. They have been known to target minorities and according to the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), 16.5% of African-American adults in the U.S. are smokers. They primarily use menthol cigarettes which are easier to smoke and harder to quit.

While smoking rates have plummeted from 42% in 1965 to 15.5% in 2016 among adults, the smoking imagery has persisted. Cigarette makers including Altria Group (MO +1.88%), British American Tobacco (BTI -0.23%) and Philip Morris International Inc. (PM +0.39%)  have seen shares decline 14.8%, 14.9% and 5.2%, respectively, over the last three months.

Situational Awareness: Everyone seems to be watching, but are they actually paying attention? We’ve experienced a re-emergence of smoking imagery that is re-normalizing a deadly habit to millions of people. Perhaps states can change their film production subsidy policies to provide tax and other incentives for only the productions which do not promote tobacco use.

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