Smoking on US television shows appears far less frequently than it used to, but a new study suggests that the portrayal of smoking may still be triggering the urge in adult smokers.
Researchers reviewed patterns in TV smoking over more than 50 years and found that they tracked with changes in adult tobacco use, suggesting that even established smokers are influenced to light up by seeing it done on the small screen, Fox News reported.
Lead study author Patrick E. Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia said that movie tobacco cues promoting smoking initiation in teens have been extensively covered in the literature, but this paper emphasizes that TV programming-promoted tobacco has been understudied and may be important as well
An effective cue "should promote smoking initiation, reinforce a current smoking habit and make it harder for smokers to quit," he said, and smoking on television appears to fit that bill.
For the new study, Jamieson and a colleague noted instances of tobacco use in prime-time TV dramas between 1955 and 2010. They compared these numbers to U.S. adult smoking rates over the same period.
Over the 55 years studied, smoking in real life and on TV both declined. Between 1955 and 1964 there was an average of almost three tobacco appearances per hour in the primetime dramas, which declined to less than one every three hours between 2001 and 2010.
For every additional tobacco appearance per hour of TV, the researchers found, each US adult smoker consumed about two more packs of cigarettes per year.
Using an economic model, the authors determined that it was more likely TV smoking instances were influencing real-life smoking levels, rather than the other way around.
The declining appearance of tobacco on TV has happened alongside a similar decline in movies, the authors note.
Cigarette prices increased steadily over the study period, which also probably deterred some smokers. Decreasing TV portrayals of tobacco use seemed to have about half the power of increasing cigarette prices in discouraging smoking, according to the results.
The study is published in the journal Tobacco Control.