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Press Release

Commons Committee warned that smoking on TV and in films is encouraging child take-up

15 Apr 2018

15 April 2018

In a strongly worded submission to the Select Committee on Science and Technology ASH and the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol studies warn that smoking on TV and in films encourages children to take up smoking [1]. They point out that children in the UK are still exposed to significant amounts of smoking on screen and that it is the amount of smoking that is important, not whether it is glamourised or not.

The submission includes new survey results showing that 81% of 11-15 year olds and 88% of 16-18 year olds report seeing smoking in films. For TV the numbers reporting seeing smoking on TV were 68% of 11-15 year olds and 77% of 16-18 year olds. [2] One of the worst examples, included in the submission, was last summer’s reality TV programme Love Island. The series, which was very popular with teenagers, delivered an estimated 47 million gross tobacco impressions to children aged under 16. [3] The proportion of Oscar-listed films containing smoking this year was 86%, up from 60% four years ago, with smoking featuring by far and away most heavily in a PG rated British film, ‘Darkest Hour’.[4]

Professor John Britton said:

“Seeing people smoking in the media can increase the likelihood that a young person takes up smoking by as much as 40%. It doesn’t matter whether the people smoking are heroes or villains, glamourous or otherwise. All smoking content is a role model which results in some young people becoming addicted to a lethal product for life.”

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, said:

“Our surveys show children reporting high awareness of smoking on screen, particularly in films and TV. Ofcom and the BBFC, which regulate these sectors, need to take the necessary steps to warn parents of the risks and protect our children from the harmful effects of tobacco imagery.”

The submission includes new figures calculated by Cancer Research UK which show that despite declines in smoking prevalence a large number of young people are still taking up smoking causing significant harm to their health and wellbeing. Between 2014 and 2016 around 127,000 children a year started smoking for the first time [5], equivalent to 17 classrooms of secondary school children a day.[6] Research shows that over 60% of those who try smoking go on to become regular smokers.[7]

Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable premature death, killing over half all long-term smokers. While much of the damage is long-term there are immediate impacts too. Young smokers have a lower level of lung function than those who have never smoked and smoking reduces the rate of lung growth. [8]

George Butterworth, Senior Policy Manager at Cancer Research UK, said:

“Smoking is an addiction of childhood, not an adult choice. New figures published by Cancer Research UK show that 127,000 children start smoking each year in the UK. The introduction of standardised packaging of tobacco products, backed up the complete ban on advertising, leaves smoking in the entertainment media as the main way smoking is promoted to children. Yet parents seem unaware of the risks.”

Now that all advertising, promotion and sponsorship is banned in the UK, smoking in the entertainment media has become an increasingly important factor in youth smoking initiation. Yet a Yougov survey for ASH found that parents remain unconcerned about such exposure with 42% saying that there is the right amount of smoking on TV, 31% saying they don’t know, and only 23% saying there is too much. When it comes to adults with children under 18 in their household concern is even lower, with 20% of adults with thinking there is too much smoking on TV, and 45% that it is the right amount. [9]

The relevant regulators are Ofcom (TV and video on demand) and the BBFC (film and videos/DVDs including video games). The ASH and UKCTAS recommendations to the regulators, which they would like to see the Select Committee endorse [1], are that:

  • Ofcom and the BBFC should monitor youth exposure to depictions of tobacco use on screen in the channels they regulate and publish these data in their annual reviews;
  • Ofcom and the BBFC should revise their guidelines with respect to smoking on screen in entertainment media viewed by under-18s to discourage any depictions of tobacco use; and require action to mitigate any remaining exposure.

ASH and UKCTAS have already shared the evidence with Ofcom and are having very constructive discussions with Ofcom. Ofcom has agreed to review the evidence we have provided it with and undertake its own analysis of the impact of smoking depictions on young people, preparatory to making any decisions about how to proceed. ASH and UKCTAS have written to the BBFC this week with a copy of our submission asking to meet to discuss our recommendations with them.


Notes and Links:

Action on Smoking and Health is a health charity working to eliminate the harm caused by tobacco use. For more information see:

ASH receives funding for its programme of work from Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation.

ASH staff are available for interview and have an ISDN line. For more information contact ASH on 020 7404 0242 or out of hours Deborah Arnott on 07976 935 987

[1] [download id="7584"]

[2] Survey conducted by YouGov for ASH online, via parents for 11-15 year olds and directly with 16-18 year olds. The 2018 survey had a sample of 2291 and the figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB 11-18 year olds. The fieldwork was carried out between 28th February and 17th March.

[3] Barker AB, Opazo Breton M, Cranwell J, et al. Population exposure to smoking and tobacco branding in the UK reality show ‘Love Island’. Tobacco Control Published Online First: 05 February 2018. doi: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2017-054125

[4] Compiled by the University of California, San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. March 2018

[5] Data calculated by the Statistical Information Team at Cancer Research UK using Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use in Young People in England 2016 data. Figures are the average per year between 2014 and 2016. Percentage of new smokers was calculated for each single-year age band, and 'smoker' was defined as 'regular', 'occasional' or 'used to smoke'. For example, percentage of new smokers aged 13 in 2016, was calculated by subtracting the percentage of smokers aged 12 in 2015, from the percentage of smokers aged 13 in 2016. This calculation was used for ages 12, 13, 14 and 15; for age 11 all smokers were considered new smokers. 2015 figures were estimated as the average of 2014 and 2016, as no 2015 survey was carried out. Percentage of new smokers in England was applied to UK population estimates to obtain number of new UK smokers.

[6] National Statistics. Schools, pupils and their characteristics: January 2017. Figure G: Average one-teacher class size: secondary schools 20.8

[7] Max Birge, Stephen Duffy, Joanna Astrid Miler, Peter Hajek; What Proportion of People Who Try One Cigarette Become Daily Smokers? A Meta-Analysis of Representative Surveys, Nicotine & Tobacco Research, , ntx243,

[8] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Smoking: 50 Years of Progress. A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2014

[9] Survey conducted online by YouGov for ASH. Fieldwork for 2018 survey was undertaken between 8th February and 6th March. Total sample size was 12767 GB adults and the figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).