Senators challenge smoking on newest media channels

In a letter sent on April 15, 2019, three U.S. Senators — Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Edward Markey (D-MA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) — queried thirteen of America's largest media companies on how many of their films and TV shows featured toxic tobacco imagery in the past five years and asked each company to take a position on recommended policies to protect kids' health.

The Senators reminded traditional broadcast and film producers CBS, Comcast, Disney (owns Fox), Lionsgate, Sony, and Viacom that kid-rated smoking remains a major public health threat. Several of these companies also run on-demand film and TV services.

Senators also broke new ground by warning "disrupter" streaming and on-demand companies Alphabet (YouTube), Amazon (Prime), Apple (iTunes, Apple TV+), AT&T (owns Warner), Hulu (controlled by Disney), and Netflix not to make the same mistakes with tobacco that old-line companies have.

Senators asked all the companies to report which films and TV series they had commissioned or carried in the past five years included tobacco. How many viewers did each title reach, including children 6-11 and adolescents 12-17? What policies did the companies apply to tobacco content, if any? The Senators also asked each company to state its position on recommended policies to reduce kids' exposure:

  • Rating future films with smoking R and shows with smoking TV-MA (except depictions of tobacco's consequences or portrayals of actual smokers in documentaries or bio-dramas).
  • Hedging existing films and TV shows with smoking with warnings in their online listings.
  • Giving parents the option of blocking video material with tobacco imagery, regardless of rating.
  • Requiring producers to attest there was no tobacco industry influence on films or shows with smoking.
  • Stipulating that a strong anti-tobacco spot would precede any entertainment product with tobacco.

Breathe California-UCSF's annual report, released April 10, 2019, found four out of six MPAA-member film companies in 2018 had cut youth-rated tobacco exposures by 93 percent since 2002. But two other major studios (Comcast's Universal and Disney's Fox) boosted their exposures seven-fold.

Truth Initiative's first report on streamer platforms, in March 2018, found that nearly 80 percent of their "original" shows most popular with younger viewers featured tobacco imagery.

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Download one of the thirteen letters Senators Blumenthal, Markey and Van Hollen sent on April 15, 2019.