Exclusive: Study finds tobacco imagery persists in TV, movies and music videos viewed by young audiences

WASHINGTON – It’s no surprise that 2020 was a big year for streaming – in a scary, unprecedented year, entertainment provided viewers with a source of escape and comfort while staying at home. 

But a new report from Truth Initiative, an anti-smoking group, says that watching some of the year’s biggest TV shows, movies and music videos also exposed young people to frequent scenes of smoking and vaping imagery, which studies have proven increases the likelihood of them trying some form of tobacco. 

Truth Initiative’s study of streaming in 2020, released Tuesday and obtained exclusively by USA TODAY, estimates that 27 million young people were exposed to smoking and vaping imagery in 2020 from streaming shows alone.

"That behavior has become so prevalent among all of us, but especially among young people during the pandemic when everybody was stuck at home and watching more content than ever," says Truth Initiative CEO Robin Koval. 

More than 60% of the most popular binge-watched shows among 15- to 24-year-olds featured depictions of tobacco use. The figure is down 13 percentage points from the 2019 study but remains a worrisome total, Koval says. The study notes that a pandemic-fueled increase in streaming activity in 2020 “raises concerns that overall exposure to tobacco imagery may be greater.” 

Last year's report:TV tobacco imagery persists, study says young viewers turn to vaping

Netflix's "The Queen's Gambit" featured the single most depictions of tobacco use in any show of 2020, according to a new study.

Netflix was deemed TV's worst offender for the fourth year in a row, led by hit period drama "The Queen's Gambit," according to the fourth annual report: Tobacco was included in every episode. "Stranger Things" also made the list. (Even though its most recent season was released in 2019, it was still one of the top-binged shows of the year, according to the group's survey of 15-24-year-olds.)

Among other newly released or most-watched shows with heavy tobacco use in 2020: Fox's "The Simpsons" and "Bob Burgers," Showtime's "Shameless" and Netflix's "Big Mouth," "The Umbrella Academy" and "On My Block."

In 2019, Netflix adopted a tobacco-free policy for new shows aimed at younger audiences (14 or under), but the new edict did not apply to the current series and included exceptions for "creative vision" and historical accuracy.

Charlie Heaton, left, and David Harbour, with a cigarette in his mouth, co-star in a scene from Netflix's "Stranger Things."

“It's disappointing since it's been brought to their attention," Koval says. To Netflix, she adds: “we've pointed out that the problem exists. We're waiting for (them) to do better." 

“We remain committed to reducing smoking in our content, especially for shows that are youth rated (TV-14 and below)," Netflix said in a statement to USA TODAY. "Since the implementation of our policy, we’re proud that our newer youth-rated shows popular with young people like 'Shadow and Bone,' 'Sweet Tooth' and 'Never Have I Ever' include no smoking." (Representatives for Fox and Showtime did not respond to requests for comment.)

Some progress was made in 2020: Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” and “Fuller House” removed all tobacco depictions, and “Big Mouth,” “Shameless” and “Lucifer” featured less smoking than in past seasons, the study found.

More:Smoking on TV: Attorneys general call on Hollywood unions for help kicking the habit

The continued viewership of "Stranger Things" brings up another vital point of conversation in the age of streaming: Storytelling choices matter in the long run because the ability to binge older shows means the effects of on-screen depictions can linger long after a show’s initial run.

"You can't erase history, but I think it's a great way to bring awareness to the issue so content creators, producers, the entertainment community, understand that these creative decisions that they make have consequences and can last for a very, very long time," Koval says. 

'Wonder Woman,' Camila Cabello, The Weeknd also feature tobacco use

More than one-third of the top movies released in 2020 included tobacco depictions, including several rated by the Motion Picture Association as suitable for young audiences, including “The Personal History of David Copperfield” and “Wonder Woman 1984," according to an analysis by NORC at the University of Chicago. 

And for the first time, the study also evaluated popular music videos from 2020: Nearly 1 in 4 of the top 10 songs on Billboard's weekly hot dance and electronic, country, R&B/hip-hop, rock and alternative and pop airplay lists featured tobacco use, collectively amassing more than 6 billion views on YouTube, Truth Initiative's research found. “Bandit” by JuiceWRLD, “Party Girl” by StaySolidRocky, “My Oh My” by Camila Cabello, and “Heartless” by The Weeknd featured the most tobacco depictions. 

“While we cannot determine the age of individual viewers, the nature of music video virality among young people suggests that, at a minimum, these videos had significant youth views,” the report says. “And the nature of music videos, which are short and often watched on phones, means that young people are likely absorbing tobacco imagery without parental oversight or knowledge.” 

Representatives for WarnerMedia, Cabello, The Weeknd and StaySolidRocky did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

The original animated Cruella de Vil accessorized with a long cigarette holder - a prop that the 2021 live-action "Cruella" did without.

One major change at the movies: Disney’s “Cruella,” which debuted in theaters and streamed on Disney+ simultaneously in May 2021, did away with the character’s signature long cigarette, seen in earlier "101 Dalmatians" films.

Where to go from here?  

Tobacco is often depicted in entertainment as something to reach for in a stressful situation. Experts note this sends a harmful message, particularly as youth depression and anxiety have doubled during the pandemic, according to a 2021 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

What can be done to help? The 2020 study urges creators to develop “transparent anti-tobacco policies,” continue airing anti-tobacco and anti-vaping ads, and expand education and outreach. 

More:Hollywood has a sordid history with portrayals of mental illness. It's trying to do better.

Hollywood has increasingly warned viewers of content about abuse, addiction and mental health struggles, and offered resources for help. Koval says the same can be done with tobacco use. 

"We understand that they're creating entertainment that their audiences love, she says. "And we certainly don't want to come off as sounding like we want to control the creative partnership … but there's a way to maintain the creativity and the entertainment value and all the wonderful things we love about a show and also help our kids avoid addiction that can last a lifetime."

Contributing: Bill Keveney