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 new study involving researchers from our Tobacco Control Research Group suggests.

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.

This latest study comes on the day significant new funding was announced from Bloomberg Philanthropies which will put Bath’s Tobacco Control Research Group at the centre of a brand new global tobacco industry watchdog. The STOP initiative will focus on a range of issues including the monitoring of tobacco promotion.

While tobacco content in film has been covered extensively, 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.

De facto advertising

Dr Jo Cranwell, senior author of the paper, at the Tobacco Control Research Group worked in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Nottingham 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.

She explained: “Depictions of smoking in TV is a de facto form of tobacco advertising which often does not reflect the pervasiveness of smoking in real life. TV production companies and broadcasters themselves have an obligation to the public to massively reduce or eliminate smoking from TV programmes entirely. There is no justification that I can think of for including it in the first place and exposure to such depictions undermines the strides taken in tobacco control in recent years.

"The makers of Love Island and ITV have responded very positively to our previous research which highlighted smoking in its Series 3 by banning it completely from screen. It would be great if other productions companies and broadcasters could follow their lead across the board."

Research from Dr Cranwell from earlier this year suggested that viewers of the TV reality show Love Island were exposed to millions of tobacco related images.

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 1-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.

Breakdown of tobacco content on TV

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 9pm 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 1-minute intervals containing any tobacco content increased, rising from 731 to 751 in 2015.

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 9pm.

The research is part-funded by UKCTAS.