UK children are being exposed to millions of tobacco images and messages every week on prime time television, according to new research at The University of Nottingham.
Doctors and academics at the University-based UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies (UKCTCS) are calling for more stringent controls on the visual portrayal of, and references to, smoking in TV programmes.
The new research published online in the BMJ journal, Tobacco Control, says smoking and other tobacco content frequently feature in films marketed to children, which is known to spark their interest in starting to smoke.
'Urgent need for curbs'
Tobacco advertising, sponsorship and promotion in TV programmes is banned in the UK, but imagery included for artistic or editorial reasons is exempt.
Dr Ailsa Lyons, Research Fellow at UKCTCS said: “Our detailed research points to the urgent need for more stringent curbs on tobacco imagery in the TV programme schedule. This would help reduce the uptake of smoking among young people, who spend an average of 2.5 hours in front of the TV every day.”
“The appearance of real brands in fictional programmes, such as soap operas, is of questionable legality and we would call for the regulations and guidelines on tobacco content to be reviewed to protect children. We would recommend that future television programming remove gratuitous depictions of tobacco, particularly actual smoking and tobacco branding, from programmes aimed at young people, or, in the UK, scheduled before the 2100 watershed.”
Smoking on screen
The researchers analysed the weekly content of all five free to air UK TV channels, broadcast between 1800 and 2200 hours on three separate occasions, four weeks apart, in April, May, and June 2010.
The content was then coded in 1 minute intervals according to whether it was: actual use of a tobacco product; implied use; the presence of tobacco paraphernalia, such as packs and ashtrays; and other references to tobacco, such as a news report.
The authors also looked for appearances of clear and unambiguous tobacco branding and merchandising.
In all, the 420 hours of recordings comprised 613 programmes plus 1121 adverts and trailers, totalling 25210 part or full minute intervals. Documentaries (161), news programmes (139), and soap operas (72) were the most common genres.
34% tobacco content
Among the 613 programmes broadcast, a third (210; 34%) contained some tobacco content. This occurred at least once in more than half of all reality TV (67%), feature films (64%), and comedy (52%) programmes and in around half of soap operas (49%) and drama (48%).
Over two thirds of tobacco content (69%) featured in the 75% of hours of programmes in the sample broadcast before the 9 pm “watershed” which marks the line between material more suitable for adults than for children.
The break-down of content type showed that actual tobacco use occurred in 245 (1%) of all 1-minute intervals, in 73 (12%) of programmes, and (0.7%) of adverts/trailers.
At least one appearance of implied tobacco use, tobacco paraphernalia, or other references to tobacco occurred in 618 (2.5%) intervals. And 66 tobacco branding appearances occurred in 27 intervals in 18 programmes.
Based on the programme content and sizeable audience viewing figures for young people, this translates into 59 million instances of tobacco imagery/messaging, 16 million of actual tobacco use, and 3 million of tobacco brand appearances every week.