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In what they are calling the largest-ever study linking tobacco use to television, researchers on Thursday said that a decline in the depiction of characters smoking in TV shows has led to a significant drop in the sales of cigarettes.
Researchers analyzed 1,838 hours of primetime dramas on broadcast TV — cable was excluded — that aired from 1955-2010 and determined that, at its peak in 1961, there were 4.96 instances of tobacco use per hour of programming. In 2010, that had dropped to just 0.29 instances per hour.
The researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, after adjusting for the rising cost of cigarettes, concluded that each instance of tobacco use was associated with 38.5 fewer cigarettes sold per person, per year in the U.S.
The study makes that case that TV wasn’t merely reflecting a drop in cigarette smoking, but in part causing the drop. The study determined this by attempting to adjust for the impact of TV commercials for cigarettes, which have were banned in 1971, as well as for the rising number of news reports about the harmful effects of smoking.
“We’ve been telling people for years that smoking is bad for their health, and it hasn’t been working because it’s so powerful an addiction, and on-screen portrayals of tobacco use is a powerful incentive to smoke,” study co-author Dan Romer told The Hollywood Reporter.
“TV characters who smoke are likely to trigger the urge to smoke in cigarette users, making it harder for them to quit,” added lead author Patrick Jamieson.
While researchers looked at all tobacco use — including pipes, cigars and chewing tobacco — all categories were lumped together and correlated with cigarette sales. Romer said, though, that roughly 90 percent of instances of “tobacco use” in the TV shows watched were, indeed, the smoking of a cigarette.
The study estimated that the decline in tobacco use on TV had almost half as much impact on smoking as did price increases — as price increases led to a per capita decrease in cigarettes of 18 packs a year, while declining TV depictions can be credited for a per capita decrease of nearly nine packs annually.
For the study, researchers analyzed shows culled from the Top 30 primetime broadcasted dramas each year as measured by Nielsen, including such shows such as Dragnet, Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, The Fugitive, Charlie’s Angels, Miami Vice and ER.
“Hollywood can take credit for reducing smoking,” Romer said. “On the other hand, it may have contributed to smoking by its portrayal on cable TV … but we did not include that in our research.”
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