Tuesday 21 August 2018

Tobacco on TV

If your life ever seems pointless console yourself with the thought that you are not Jo Cranwell. Cranwell is an archetypal 'public health' researcher, a a psychologist with no background in health or medicine who spends most of her time watching television at the taxpayers' expense and demanding restrictions on freedom. She is a 21st century curtain-twitcher.

You may recall her from her essential work looking for 'inferred alcohol use' in Geordie Shore but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Her CV also includes looking for tobacco use in top-grossing films, looking for alcohol content on British television, looking for alcohol use in music videos, looking for tobacco content in music videos, and - in an exciting twist - looking for alcohol and tobacco content in music videos. All of this crucial research was paid for by the Department of Health.

She has now returned with 'Content analysis of tobacco content in UK television', a self-explanatory study in which she watched four hours of TV on the five terrestrial stations for three weeks each to see if she could find some 'tobacco content' to complain about.

Tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, including all TV advertising and paid product placement, is prohibited in the UK by the 2002 Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act. However, tobacco imagery included in TV programmes, including trailers, for artistic or editorial purposes is exempt from the Act, instead covered by the Office of Communications (OfCom) Broadcasting Code. 

Note the subtle way in which she implies that the depiction of tobacco use is a form of advertising. It is not, of course, and it was never exempted from the advertising ban because nobody in their right mind suggested it should be included in the first place.

But there's only one way to find out how much tobacco non-advertising appears on screen and that's to put your feet up and watch hundreds of hours of telly...

We analysed 420 hours of footage including 611 programmes, 909 adverts and 211 trailers. A total of 27 083 intervals of 1 min were coded, of which 22 960 were from programmes, 3663 from adverts and 460 from trailers.  

I guess it beats working for a living.

So what did she find?

Tobacco content occurred in 33% of all programmes and 8% of all adverts or programme trailer breaks... These findings are virtually unchanged from our earlier analysis of programme content from 2010. Audiovisual tobacco content remains common in UK television programmes. 

If 33% and 8% seem a bit high, you need to understand that Cranwell isn't just looking for people smoking. She is looking for...

The presence of tobacco or tobacco related materials, coded by the type of appearance (including cigarette or other tobacco pack, matches, lighter, ashtray, no smoking or smoking area signs).

That's right. A pack of matches, an empty ash tray and a no smoking sign all count as 'tobacco content', as does...

Any inferred tobacco use without any actual use onscreen (eg, holding a cigarette without actual smoking or a comment about going for a cigarette), coded as verbal or non-verbal.

Let's start with 'actual tobacco use' (which includes e-cigarettes, so it's not actually tobacco use). Note that Cranwell et al. split their viewing into one minute intervals, of which there were 27,083 in total. They were watching between 6pm and 10pm.

Actual tobacco use appeared in 207 intervals (1% of the total), in 76 (12%) of programmes and 13 (1%) of adverts/trailers. 

I cannot think of any TV commercials that have featured smoking in donkey's years, except for anti-smoking advertisements and nicotine replacement therapy, so I assume that is what the 'tobacco content' is. In other words, it is anti-tobacco content.

Then there is 'implied tobacco use'...

Implied tobacco use was found in 203 intervals (1% of all intervals) and in 118 of all broadcasts (programmes/adverts/trailers combined).

And what was the most common form of implied use?

Tobacco-related objects accounted for the most content appearing in 438 tobacco intervals (2% of total) and in 202 of all broadcasts. Up to 260 intervals (66%) containing tobacco-related objects occurred before the 21:00 watershed. No smoking signs accounted for the most tobacco-related objects.


Finally, there are 'tobacco brands'. As you might expect, there were very few of them and all but one appeared either in a news story about the illicit trade or in The Simpsons.

There were 11 intervals (37 actual appearances) which contained tobacco branding, occurring in seven different programmes. Most of these appearances arose from cigarette packets or tobacco boxes shown during two news reports on illegal cigarettes (five intervals, 45.5% of the total branding intervals) or from appearances of the fictitious brand ‘Laramie’, which featured in ‘The Simpsons’ (five intervals, 45.5% of the total branding intervals). There was only one appearance during a TV programme in one interval.

No detail is too small for this 'study' and so we get a full account of how an imaginary brand consumed by two unappealing and continuously coughing characters in The Simpsons is 'advertised'...

Moe’s Tavern, advert for Laramie cigarettes is visible; Kwik-E-Mart, a poster for Laramie stating ’Smoke em'; Supermarket, Selma and Patty buy packets of Laramie cigarettes; Truck has Laramie logo on the side; Moe’s bar, a poster on wall which says 'Try Laramie'.

And if you're wondering what the sole appearance of a real brand outside the news was in over 400 hours of television, it was in a drama called The Catch in which...
The skipper smokes a cigarette on the bridge with a non-smoking deckhand. In the galley, a branded tobacco packet can be seen.

This is risible stuff. Anybody can see that tobacco use is far less common on television than it is in real life. This is why Cranwell has to include no smoking signs, anti-smoking advertisements and news reports about illegal cigarette sales to make her point.

And what is her point? Surprise, surprise, it's that there should be more regulation/censorship...

This study demonstrates that tobacco content, including smoking, occurs frequently on UK prime-time TV in programmes which are likely to be viewed by young people, as such, this is likely to lead to experimentation and uptake among young children. We suggest that guidelines on tobacco content need to be revised and more carefully enforced to protect children from exposure to tobacco imagery and the consequent risk of smoking initiation.

Anybody else remember when all these people wanted was non-smoking sections in restaurants?

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