Netflix has been singled out for criticism by an anti-smoking organisation, which released research that claims the streaming giant’s original programmes have more than twice as many scenes featuring smoking as its rivals.

Truth Initiative, a US public health organisation, identified the 14 most popular shows with viewers aged 15-24 across broadcast and cable providers. It found Netflix shows featured a total of 319 “tobacco incidents” (a definition that covers implied use of a tobacco product), with Stranger Things top of the list for 182 scenes featuring cigarettes.

AMC’s The Walking Dead was the next highest, featuring 94 scenes showing tobacco use, according to the research. Other Netflix shows on the list were Orange Is the New Black (45), House of Cards (41), Fuller House (22), and docu-series Making a Murderer (20).

David Harbour as Hopper in Stranger Things
Police action … David Harbour as Hopper in Stranger Things. Photograph: Courtesy of Netflix

“While streaming entertainment is more popular than ever, we’re glad that smoking is not,” a Netflix spokesman said to Variety. “We’re interested to find out more about the study.”

Robin Koval, CEO and president of Truth Initiative, said the rise of streaming channels had led to “a pervasive re-emergence of smoking across screens that is glamourising and renormalising a deadly habit to millions of impressionable young people”.

Smoking has caused ethical problems for Netflix series in the past. During filming for the second season of The Crown, actor Vanessa Kirby discussed whether or not it would be morally right to show scenes of Princess Margaret smoking while heavily pregnant. “We decided not to do it, and I didn’t know what to do with my hands,” Kirby told Vanity Fair. “I poured myself a large whisky. I was like, this is the only way.”

In 2011, researchers looked at the effects of seeing smoking on screen had on smokers’ brain patterns. The finding, reported in the Journal of Neuroscience, was based on brain scans of smokers and non-smokers taken while they watched actors puff on a cigarette. The resulting scans revealed that specific parts of the brain went into action, but only if the person was a smoker.

“When a smoker sees someone smoking, their brain seems to simulate the movements they would make if they were having a cigarette themselves,” said Todd Heatherton at the Centre for Social Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Film-makers have also been criticised for their depiction of smoking on screen. In 2015, research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found 47% of that year’s films rated PG-13 had at least one occurrence of smoking or tobacco use. The CDC singled out the Walt Disney Company and 21st Century Fox for having created over half (56%) of the youth-rated movies in which tobacco appeared.

The Motion Picture Association of America responded to criticism that too many of its members were glamourising smoking in films aimed at children, by claiming its film-makers were protected by the first amendment, which safeguards free speech.


Lanre Bakare

The GuardianTramp

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