Viewers of the popular British reality TV show, 'Love Island', would have been exposed to millions of tobacco related images, according to a study involving researchers from our Department for Health with colleagues at the University of Nottingham, published today in the journal Tobacco Control.

This is despite advertising and broadcasting regulations, intended to protect children from smoking imagery on UK television, emphasise the researchers, who call for more stringent curbs on tobacco content on TV as a matter of urgency.

The final episode alone of series 3 of Love Island, in which contestants living in a Spanish villa couple up with each other to remain in the show and claim the £50,000 prize, was watched by around 2.6 million people when it aired in 2017.

In a bid to find out how well series 3 complied with advertising and broadcasting regulatory constraints, the researchers assessed changes in tobacco content for every other one of the 42 episodes, and estimated viewer exposure to the smoking imagery on screen.

To do this, they used one-minute interval coding to measure audio-visual tobacco content, categorised as actual use; implied use (verbal references and behaviours); paraphernalia (on screen presence of tobacco and associated materials); and brand appearances.

Audience viewing figures were obtained from Kantar Media and combined with mid-year population estimates for 2016 to estimate overall and individual ‘impressions’ - separate incidents seen - by age group for each of the coded episodes.

Key findings

  • The 21 episodes included 204 intervals of tobacco related content - 20 per cent of the total across series 3.
  • Actual tobacco use appeared in 66 (7 per cent) intervals, and usually involved cigarette smoking by one person; smoking by several people occurred in 10 intervals.
  • Implied tobacco use occurred in 104 (10 per cent) intervals, and paraphernalia in 143 (14 per cent). This last most often involved plain white cigarette packs (117 intervals), with up to eight visible in any one interval.
  • Branding was visible in 16 (1.6 per cent) intervals, and involved just one brand, which was clearly identified from the logo on the cigarette as Lucky Strike Double Click, a brand that is not widely available in the UK.
  • Following widespread media criticism of high levels of smoking in the June 19 episode, tobacco content fell significantly from 12.4 intervals per episode to 8.4 and actual tobacco use from 4.9 intervals to 2.3.
  • When all the data were combined with audience viewing figures and population estimates, the researchers calculated that the 21 episodes delivered 559 overall tobacco ‘impressions’ to the UK population, including 47 million to children under the age of 16.
  • Tobacco impressions were highest among the 16-34 age group, averaging 6.95 per head, and twice as high among women as they were among men. The episodes delivered 44 million impressions of branded tobacco products, including 4 million to children.
  • The evidence clearly shows that a link between young people’s exposure to on screen tobacco imagery and starting to smoke, emphasise the researchers.

Sending a dangerous message

The study was led by Dr Rachael Murray, Associate Professor in Health Policy in the University's Division of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Nottingham, and colleagues in the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies (UKCTAS).

She said: "This study demonstrates that in spite of UK regulatory controls on tobacco advertising, promotion and brand placement, and on condoning, encouraging or glamorising smoking programmes widely seen by people aged under 18, the 42 episodes of this reality TV show probably delivered one billion tobacco total impressions to the UK population, including approximately 100 million to children."

Co-author Dr Jo Cranwell of our Tobacco Control Research Group added: "The extent of smoking in Love Island is shocking. Most significantly, despite legislation in the UK that requires anti-smoking health warnings to be displayed on cigarette packets, in consecutive episodes of Love Island these warnings were covered with white paper. This is a British show aired on prime time British TV yet it sends out a dangerous message that smoking is somehow harmless and innocent."

Nearly 44 million impressions of Lucky Strike branding “including 4 million to children” would also have been delivered, the researchers calculate. These calculations are likely to be an underestimate, as they don’t take account of online viewing or the accompanying weekly review of the series, 'Love Island: Aftersun', the researchers add.

They point out that another series of 'Love Island' is reportedly in the making for broadcast this year, and that the programme’s format has been sold to several other countries.

Dr Murray added: "We suggest that programme makers be reminded of their legal obligation on the representation of smoking in these shows and that regulators take a more proactive line in enforcement to protect children from gratuitous promotion of tobacco. More stringent controls on tobacco content in television programmes are urgently needed."