Tobacco content still common on UK prime time TV, despite regulations

14 Aug 2018 11:22:39.987
PA 172/18

Tobacco content remains common on UK prime time TV, occurring in a third of all programmes, despite advertising and broadcasting regulations designed to protect children from this kind of exposure, a study led by The University of Nottingham has revealed. 

The amount of exposure has hardly changed in five years and is likely to heavily influence young people’s take-up of smoking, according to the research which is published in the journal Tobacco Control

Tobacco content in film has been covered extensively, but relatively little attention has been paid to its inclusion on prime-time TV, despite the fact that children are likely to spend more time watching TV than they are films. 

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The researchers, Dr Alex Barker and Professor John Britton in the University’s Division of Epidemiology and Public Health, worked in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Bath to analyse the tobacco content of all programmes, adverts, and trailers broadcast on the five national free to air TV channels between 1800 and 2200 hours during the course of three separate weeks in September, October, and November 2015.

Pre-watershed coverage

Their analysis included any actual or implied use, such as holding a cigarette without smoking it, or making a comment about smoking; smoking/tobacco paraphernalia; and presence of branding in one-minute intervals. The results were then compared with those of a similar analysis carried out in 2010. 

In all, 420 hours of broadcast footage, including 611 programmes, 909 adverts, and 211 trailers, were analysed. 

Some 291 broadcasts (17 per cent of all broadcasts) included tobacco content. The channel with the most tobacco content was Channel 5, and the one with the least was BBC2. 

Tobacco content occurred in one in three TV programmes broadcast, and nearly one in 10 (8 per cent) adverts or trailers. 

Actual tobacco use occurred in one in eight (12 per cent) programmes, while tobacco related content--primarily no smoking signs--occurred in just 2 percent of broadcasts. Implied use and branding were rare. 
Although most tobacco content occurred after the 9 pm watershed, it still occurred on the most popular TV channels before then.  And comparison with the previous analysis in 2010 showed that the number of one-minute intervals containing any tobacco content increased, rising from 731 to 751 in 2015.

Glamorisation of smoking

Tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, including paid product placement in TV adverts, is banned in the UK, but tobacco imagery in TV programmes and trailers is exempt, and covered instead by media regulator, OfCom’s, broadcasting code. 

This code is designed to protect children by restricting depictions of tobacco use in children’s programmes, and preventing the glamorisation of smoking in programmes broadcast before 9 pm. 

Dr Barker said: “Audiovisual tobacco content remains common in prime-time UK television programmes and is likely to be a significant driver of smoking uptake in young people.  

“Guidelines on tobacco content need to be revised and more carefully enforced to protect children from exposure to tobacco imagery and the consequent risk of smoking initiation.” 

A full copy of the research paper can be viewed online at Tobacco Control


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Notes to editors: 

The University of Nottingham is a research-intensive university with a proud heritage, consistently ranked among the world's top 100. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our 44,000 students - Nottingham was named University of the Year for Graduate Employment in the 2017 Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, was awarded gold in the TEF 2017 and features in the top 20 of all three major UK rankings. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement. We are ranked eighth for research power in the UK according to REF 2014. We have six beacons of research excellence helping to transform lives and change the world; we are also a major employer and industry partner - locally and globally.

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Story credits

More information is available from Dr Alex Barker in the School of Medicine, University of Nottingham on +44 (0)115 823 1383,

Emma Thorne Emma Thorne - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5793 Location: University Park

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