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TV Stubs Out Smoking

By Christopher Gildemeister


The Parents Television Council’s mission is founded upon the premise that television programming can influence behavior, particularly that of children. This is self-evident: why would advertisers spend literally billions of dollars every year on TV commercials, if what viewers see has absolutely no influence on them whatsoever?


While much of the PTC’s activity is directed toward informing the public about portrayals which could have negative consequences for child viewers – particularly excessive violence, sex and profanity – it is also true that television also acts responsibly in certain instances. The portrayal of smoking, and particularly cigarette smoking, is one area in which TV’s broadcast networks deserve congratulations. On prime-time broadcast television cigarette smoking, and the use of tobacco generally, has over time become stigmatized and, increasingly, is avoided altogether. This is all to the good, given the overwhelming evidence demonstrating poor health effects arising from tobacco use.


It was not always so. In TV’s earliest days, cigarette companies were some of television’s biggest advertisers, and tobacco products featured prominently on America's TV screens. The very first regular prime-time television news programs were sponsored by Camel cigarettes. Beginning in February 1948, NBC showed Camel Newsreel Theatre, hosted by John Cameron Swayze. Swayze also anchored the newsreel’s successor program, the Camel News Caravan, during which the Camel logo was prominently displayed.


But news programs were not the only shows sponsored by cigarette companies. Other early hits, such as Topper and I Love Lucy, had cigarette companies as their advertisers, and often commercials featured the stars of the program themselves. This tendency continued into the 1960s; and given today’s concern about children smoking, many would be surprised to learn that cartoon characters were used in the ads. The Flintstones was sponsored by Winston cigarettes in its first season, with several commercials showing Fred Flintstone happily puffing away while Barney Rubble praises the brand. Another cigarette company, Chesterfield, had its own animated character, the Chesterfield King, who was featured in their commercials. The King was voiced by Daws Butler, the same talent who gave voice to many favorite cartoon characters, such as Yogi Bear, Huckelberry Hound and Quick Draw McGraw. 


But throughout the 1960s awareness was growing that cigarette smoking, and use of tobacco products generally, was harmful to users’ health. The release of the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health in 1964 caused a massive shift in American understanding of, and tolerance for, smoking. This change influenced broadcast television’s approach to tobacco use.  In June 1967, the Federal Communications Commission required television stations to air anti-smoking advertisements at no cost to the organizations providing them. This was intended to offset the influence of cigarette commercials, which were broadcast many times each day. By April 1970, Congress had passed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which banned the advertising of cigarettes on television and radio. The last cigarette commercial on television aired on January 1, 1971.


Even then, however, characters on TV programs continued to smoke. Over time, awareness of the negative influence such portrayals might be having grew among TV programmers. This awareness may have been accelerated by the publication of a study in the medical journal Pediatrics in 2002, which showed that the prevalence of smoking among US adolescents had increased since 1991, despite bans on television tobacco advertising. The study demonstrated that, because smoking on television programs remained widespread, youth with greater exposure to television viewing exhibited higher rates of smoking. The study established that youth who watched five or more hours of TV per day were six times more likely to start smoking than those youth who watched less than two hours per day.


Concerns about the possible influence of media portrayals of smoking on young people culminated in the declaration by the Motion Picture Association of America in May of last year stating that “all depictions that glamorize smoking or movies that feature pervasive smoking outside of an historic or other mitigating context may receive a higher rating.” While some jumped to the conclusion that smoking in a movie would automatically mean an “R” rating, the MPAA denied this; but they did mention the “declining prevalence of smoking in non-R rated films,” noting that “from July 2004 to July 2006, the percentage of films that included even a fleeting glimpse of smoking dropped from 60 percent to 52 percent,” and that very few G, PG or PG-13 films contained objectionable smoking scenes. Cable television responded explicitly to the MPAA’s move. Both the Hallmark Channel and Disney announced that their studios would eliminate depictions of smoking from their films -- a decision applauded by the PTC. And, not coincidentally, most of the programs on prime-time broadcast television have followed suit.


Today, smoking is much rarer on television, and with a very few exceptions is done only by unsympathetic or disreputable characters. Perhaps the best example of this trend was to be found on Fox’s The X-Files, which featured as its chief villain the sinister “Cigarette Smoking Man.” Today, assorted criminals on programs like CSI are seen smoking, but generally speaking the lead characters on programs do not smoke. Many episodes of ABC’s Boston Legal end with Denny Crane (William Shatner) and Alan Shore (James Spader) sharing brandy and cigars, and millionaire casino owner A.J. Cooper (Tom Selleck) on NBC’s Las Vegas similarly indulges on occasion, but these are rare exceptions to the general trend against smoking.


So stigmatized has cigarette smoking become that it is the butt of humor and satire. The Simpsons consistently mocks cigarette smoking and advertising with its fictional Laramie cigarette brand, the major sales point of which is “Laramie Extra Tar, now with more nico-glycerol.” Characters are shown hacking their way through smoking Laramies, and again, it is largely unsympathetic or distasteful characters, such as cantankerous teacher Edna Krabappel and Bart’s grouchy aunts Patty and Selma who do so.  Also satirized are tobacco companies’ proclivity for marketing their products at children, and the often prevaricating behavior in which such companies have sometimes indulged.


It is inevitable that some TV programs would defy this positive trend. It is equally inevitable that the shows doing so would both come from the pen of Seth MacFarlane. On MacFarlane’s Fox series American Dad, housewife Francine is shown to be a closet smoker. And even more disgusting was a scene from the same network’s Family Guy, in which Lois is shown extinguishing a cigarette on her wrist, then experiencing a “rush” of sexual excitement. As these series go, smoking is a minor detail compared to the many other offensive elements frequently shown. Still, it is indicative of MacFarlane’s attitude, and of the tendency of such cartoons to use their nature as animated programs to “get away with” behaviors and images for which live-action series would be called to account. 


But as a whole, the broadcast networks can be proud of their efforts toward eliminating smoking on television. What viewers, and especially children, see on TV does influence their attitudes and behavior. When smoking was shown as a commonplace and even glamorous activity, many viewers were influenced and indulged in the habit themselves. Now that smoking is given a far less positive portrayal or is not shown at all, parents can hope that their own children will have that much less incentive to begin that self-destructive habit.


In the words of one old cigarette advertisement, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Caroline Schulenburg contributed to this report.

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