How Smoking and Vaping in Media Influence Youth Tobacco Use

A new study released by the Truth Initiative reveals that the majority of young peoples’ top-watched TV shows and movies feature smoking, vaping, and other tobacco-related imagery. The report states that nearly 60% of young people’s top streaming and broadcast season releases featured smoking. Nearly 27 million youth were exposed to this tobacco imagery.[1]

Movies and TV shows aren’t the only types of media where tobacco use is featured. 23% of 2020’s top Billboard songs featured smoking and/or vaping in their music videos.

Robin Koval, CEO and President of the Truth Initiative, explains that “onscreen smoking and vaping imagery…points to a troubling trend of the renormalization and glamorization of tobacco in entertainment media and pop culture.” This is especially worrisome because on-screen tobacco imagery can have a significant influence on young people. It can even make them more likely to start smoking or vaping, themselves.

Why Are Smoking and Vaping Still Glamorized in Pop Culture?

Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a wave of laws and regulations regarding tobacco marketing swept across the United States. Tobacco ads were banned from the radio, regulations were placed upon tobacco brand sponsorships, graphic warnings were added to tobacco products themselves, and by the early 2000s, the nation stopped seeing so many positive depictions of tobacco use.[2]

Today, tobacco companies can no longer advertise their products directly, pay for branded product placement, sponsor sporting events or concerts, or even use cartoons to advertise their products. However, no law was ever signed to prevent media companies from depicting tobacco use in music or film. There aren’t even universal TV parental guideline ratings that can warn parents about tobacco use in a show, making it difficult to monitor which shows feature tobacco imagery and how often they do so.[3] Other media systems, like YouTube and TikTok, don’t have adequate ways to address tobacco use in media, either.

Few regulations specific to the way youth absorb media today make it easy for pop culture to incorporate smoking, vaping, and other types of tobacco imagery into their content for tens of millions of young people to see.

How Youth Are Influenced By Tobacco Imagery in Media

Children, teenagers, and young adults alike all have role models or media icons that they look up to. Whether it’s a sports star, a fashion icon, a talk show host, an Academy Award-winning actress, or a Grammy Award-winning singer, everyone has their favorite media personalities. Young people, in particular, are greatly influenced by the media personalities they watch and relate to.

Young people take on cues from their favorite pop culture icons and influencers. They may begin using some of the same lingo that their icons use or they may start dressing in the same style as them. While many of these cues can be harmless, cues related to tobacco can be very dangerous.

If a young person sees their favorite podcast host enjoying a conversation over a cigar, they may begin to think cigars are a great way to relax and connect with other people. A young girl may see a beautiful woman vaping a sleek, high-tech-looking e-cigarette in a music video and think it makes her look “cool” or “sophisticated.” A young boy could see his favorite sports athlete begin vaping after giving up cigarettes, only to pick up vaping himself because athletes are healthy–right?

These examples of tobacco-related imagery can make young people think smoking or vaping is OK. The more often they see celebrities and influencers use tobacco, the more normalized the idea becomes for young people to use tobacco, too. In fact, frequent exposure to smoking and vaping imagery on screens can make youth and adults twice as likely to start smoking.[4]

Reducing The Impacts of Frequent Tobacco Imagery in Media on Young People

While individuals and families themselves have little control as to what types of imagery are put out in pop culture, parents and caregivers can do their best to moderate the types of content their children are viewing. The more often young viewers see their pop culture icons using tobacco, the more likely they are to use it themselves.[5] As a result, it’s important to set time limits on viewing media and discourage binge-watching media that portrays smoking. Adults can also watch media first before showing it to their children or teens to make sure smoking or vaping isn’t used in a glorifying way.

More importantly, children learn by example, so families should eliminate tobacco from the home, stop smoking or vaping if they do so themselves, and start an open, continuous conversation with their teens about the dangers of smoking and vaping. This conversation can discuss tobacco imagery in media and how it is harmful as well as the role peer pressure plays in behavior and development. Education is the key to prevention.



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