Smoking prevalent on TV shows that are most popular with teens

Which of the following TV programs depicts tobacco use most frequently?

A. “Gossip Girl”

B. “Heroes”

C. “America’s Next Top Model”


Before you guess, a little background. For the purposes of this pop quiz, a “depiction” of tobacco is defined as a single instance of a cigarette or cigar appearing onscreen. If two characters are smoking at the same time, that counts as two depictions. If a character takes a puff, moves the cigarette off-screen and then takes another puff, those count as separate depictions. If a package of cigarettes is visible on a table, that counts as a depiction, as does each individual cigarette that may be visible inside. In this tally, it doesn’t matter whether the cigarette or cigar is lighted or not.

If you guessed “Heroes,” the drama about regular people who obtain special powers and must use them to save the world, you were wrong.

So was it “Gossip Girl,” about rich and conniving teenagers, or the “reality” show about aspiring models?

Before revealing the answer, let me explain that this quiz is made possible by researchers from Columbia University and Legacy (formerly the American Legacy Foundation), an anti-tobacco advocacy group. The researchers wanted to get a feel for how often cigarettes, cigars and pipes show up on TV shows that are most popular among the 12-to-17-year-old set.

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So they watched every episode of the eight prime-time series on the five broadcast networks that were most watched by kids in that age group (according to the ratings gurus at Nielsen Co.) in the fall of 2007. In addition to the three shows mentioned above, the study included “American Dad,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Family Guy,” “House” and “The Simpsons.”

In all, 40% of the 73 episodes in the analysis contained at least one depiction of tobacco (mainly cigarettes). Altogether there were 271 depictions, which worked out to an average of 4.4 depictions per hour. For the sake of comparison, a 1998 study by the Office of National Drug Control Policy found that 20% of the Top 20 shows watched by teens included depictions of tobacco.

In the new study, 20 of the 73 episodes were rated TV-PG (“parental guidance suggested”), and 60% of them had at least one tobacco depiction. In contrast, among the 53 shows rated TV-14 (“parents strongly cautioned”), 32% of episodes had at least one tobacco depiction. If this strikes you as backward, you’re not alone. But the researchers propose a simple solution: The parental guidelines should be rewritten so that tobacco only appears on shows rated TV-MA (mature audiences only).


By combining the Nielsen data with figures from the 2000 U.S. census, the researchers calculated that 940,000 kids ages 12 to 17 were exposed to images of tobacco as a result of watching these particular prime-time shows. But they also said that these shows were on for an average of only 38 minutes per day. Considering that the average kid in this age group watches 3 hours and 20 minutes of TV a day, these shows accounted for only 19% of their total viewing. So the total exposure to tobacco images is certainly higher.

This is bad, of course, because the more kids see smoking on TV, the more likely they are to pick up the habit themselves, according to multiple studies. The new analysis was published this week in the February issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

Now, back to our quiz. We’re down to “Gossip Girl” vs. “America’s Next Top Model.” Here’s a hint: One of these series contained not a single depiction of tobacco during the three months of the study. (Neither did “Heroes.”) The other series included an episode with a whopping 122 instances of cigarette use.

And the show that had the most depictions of tobacco was … “America’s Next Top Model.”


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