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Study: Tobacco use declines on prime-time TV dramas

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Prime-time television dramas are less smoke friendly than they were in the 1950s.

According to a study published online in the journal Tobacco Control on Thursday, there has been a dramatic decline in visibility of tobacco products on prime-time U.S. broadcast television.

Researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania determined this drop in portrayals of smoking and tobacco use in prime-time dramas mirrored the national decline in consumption.

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The study examined 1,838 hours of popular U.S. prime-time dramas — everything from “Gunsmoke” (in the 1950s) to “House M.D.” (in the 2000s) — shown on television over 56 years.

Research suggested that from 1955 to 2010, tobacco use on television declined from a high of 4.96 instances per hour of programming in 1961 to 0.29 instances per hour in 2010.

The research also noted a decline in consumption and suggested that less prime-time smoking may have led to less smoking by the general population.

“TV characters who smoke are likely to trigger the urge to smoke in cigarette users, making it harder for them to quit,” said Patrick E. Jamieson, the study’s lead author, in a release.

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“We now have further evidence that screen-based media are an important factor to consider in continued efforts to reduce the burden of smoking related illness in the U.S. and around the world,” said Dan Romer, the study co-author and APPC associate director. 

However, the study, the largest ever of tobacco use on television, looked only at broadcast television shows. Cable programs, such as AMC’s “Mad Men” — where characters frequently smoke cigarettes on screen — were not part of the study.

“Despite the decline since 1961, tobacco use on TV remains a cause for concern,” Jamieson said. “The decline in prime-time TV tobacco use is welcome news, but we need to learn more about tobacco portrayal on cable TV, YouTube, and other popular Internet-based sources.”

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