Illustration of an Oscar and a pack of cigarettes

Smoking on Screen - a Look at the Problem

This is a sample from our ‘Quit Cigarettes’ mission, which is currently live in the UK. Our goal is to increase the amount of people in the UK who quit cigarettes. Read more about our first mission here.

With modern movies and TV shows like The Crown and Fleabag adding a sheen of glamour to the deadly habit, we take a look at tobacco on-screen in 2019

Is the entertainment industry addicted to cigarettes? From the skyscrapers of HBO comedy-drama Succession to the semi-detached suburbia of BBC sitcom Mum, smoking is still a fairly common sight on screen.

The viral meme after the UK film industry’s triumph at this year’s Emmy awards was Phoebe Waller-Bridge puffing on a cig, just like Fleabag before her. But Change Incorporated’s research* has shown that a mere 18 percent of people believe there is “a lot” of smoking on TV. So is it possible we’re taking in more on-screen cigs than we realise?

This week, we’ll be hearing from industry pros who’ve worked on top shows which contain smoking (such as Stranger Things and True Detective), and looking at everything from how actors feel about smoking to what gamers make of cigs in video games. Why? Because the stakes are high.

“Studies have shown that exposure to smoking in movies is a risk factor for the initiation of cigarette smoking,” explains Dr Diana Gall, MD & GP at Doctor4U. “With the number of deaths caused by smoking and the expenditure on the NHS each year, this is why controlling, or even censoring where and why we see smoking is a medical and public health issue.”

Dr Gall acknowledges it might not instinctively feel like such an important issue in 2019. “It can be hard to notice just how often we are exposed to smoke on screen, especially when you’re engrossed in the setting of the film as a lot of it is taken in subconsciously,” she confirms. Still, despite smoking rates declining in the UK, it is not just an issue of the past. 

Our media can potentially be creating the next generation of smokers

As highlighted by Action on Smoking and Health, Cancer Research UK has shown that an average of 127,000 children aged between 11 and 15 started smoking each year between 2014 and 2016. Dr Gall insists the dangers remain real: “Our media can potentially be creating the next generation of smokers, or at least helping the tobacco industry.”

Doctor4U’s recent survey of the number of smoking incidents in the top 20 box office hits in the UK since 2002 puts more meat on the bones of this assertion. It found that the number of smoking incidents on the silver screen in 2018 was actually higher than the pre-smoking ban level in 2004, as shown in the following graph provided by the company.

“[This is] especially alarming when you see how many of these incidences are appearing in films suitable for children as young as 12, which we know is an age far more easily influenced than adults”, Dr Gall says. The survey found that nearly 2,000 smoking incidences have appeared in 12A films in the sample studied, higher than the 908 incidents in film with a 15 rating.

The British Board of Film Classification, the independent non-profit organisation which sets the age ratings on films in the UK, states in its current guidelines that "Where smoking features to a significant extent in works which appeal to children, this will normally be indicated in ratings info". But the inclusion of smoking does not automatically raise the age rating of a film, and this has drawn criticism in the past.

In 2011, then-Director of the organisation David Cooke defended the stance, saying: "There is… no public support for automatically classifying, for instance, a PG film at 18 just because it happens to contain a scene of smoking."

Have public attitudes shifted since? Change Incorporated has found that 41 percent of people would support an automatic 18 rating for films which show smoking, a number that climbs to 57.4 percent among those who smoke every day.

Illustration of a man holing out a pack of cigarettes

The BBFC insists that its current guidelines are in tune with public opinion. The guidelines are built on regular, large-scale public consultations, the most recent of which canvassed more than 10,000 people across the UK including parents and teens. The topic of smoking did not arise spontaneously in any of the BBFC’s focus groups. “While some groups have suggested that any sight of smoking in films should result in an automatic 18, most people feel that classifying 101 DALMATIANS for 'adults only' would be ludicrous,” a spokesperson said.

“I am afraid we have not undertaken any specific research into the effects of media depictions of smoking on wider social habits, as we base our guidelines and policy on what the public tell us they expect to see in films instead,” they added.

The approach to classifying films according to their smoking content looks unlikely to change anytime soon. The UK Cinema Association has stated that proposals to give films containing smoking an 18 rating “are both misguided and unworkable”. Much of the defence of the status quo rests on the principle of artistic freedom, and the ability for creatives to reflect the world as they see fit. 

The film industry would be stifled if it decided to phase out smoking

As Jason Halsey, a marketing and communications professional at talent agency Jonathan Arun Group, told Change Incorporated: “There are always going to be times when smoking is relevant as it has been part of human culture throughout most of the period that film, cinema or TV has actually existed. So if you depict those times, you can’t cut out smoking in the social context when it is relevant. Smoking is also still very much prevalent in certain social demographics and circles all over the world, so again the same argument applies.

“The film industry would be stifled if it decided to phase out smoking, drinking, drugs or any other activity that has been fundamental to human existence and behaviour. And I say this as a non-smoker.”

As such, censoring cigarettes, or even imposing guaranteed age restrictions on films which feature them, is unlikely to fly. Could it be more realistic to propose measures that don’t impede the content itself? Change Incorporated has found that 62 percent of people believe TV shows that contain cigarettes should carry a message at the end letting smokers know how to contact 'help to quit' services.

The BBC declined to comment on whether this was a step it would consider adopting, referring instead to their current editorial guidelines. At the time of writing, ITV had not responded to a request for comment, nor had Channel 4, Amazon or Netflix (though it’s worth noting Netflix has vowed to cut down on showing cigs in its original programming). Channel 5 also declined to comment. Ultimately, UK broadcasters fall under the umbrella of the regulator Ofcom, as all TV shows broadcast in the UK abide by their rules, which state that smoking “must not be condoned, encouraged or glamorised in other programmes likely to be widely seen, heard or accessed by under-eighteens unless there is editorial justification”.

This effectively means smoking on screen remains an issue of subjective discretion. As Halsey outlined, there is a reason for this – artistic freedom. This means it’s an issue of striking a balance between creative license and social responsibility. But with 51 percent of people thinking writers should be more hesitant before including cigarettes in a script, plus 50 percent believing smoking on screen should be regulated more heavily, it’s at least worth noting that the public feel artistic freedom is a responsibility that should be handled with care.

*Smoking On Screen, in Gaming and on Social Media: Savanta Research, August 2019. Sample: 2,009 Adults aged 18+