UK children see millions of TV tobacco images every week

Cancer Research UK

Television schedules are exposing children to millions of images of tobacco use, or implied use, every week, new UK research has revealed.

Paid tobacco advertising, sponsorship and promotion in TV programmes is outlawed in the UK, but directors are allowed to use smoking imagery for 'artistic' or 'editorial' purposes.

That loophole means that smoking and tobacco products frequently feature in films and programmes directly marketed to kids, creating a 'cool factor' around the habit.

Tightening the laws on tobacco imagery on TV could help reduce the number of young people taking up smoking, according to a study published in the journal Tobacco Control.

Researchers recorded the weekly output of all five free-to-air UK television channels between 6pm and 10pm on three separate occasions between April and June 2010.

The material was then broken down into one minute chunks, with the authors scouring each one for evidence of tobacco use or implied use, the presence of smoking paraphernalia such as cigarettes packets and ashtrays, or general references to tobacco.

The authors also searched for examples of clear and unambiguous tobacco branding and merchandising.

The team examined 420 hours of scheduling, which consisted of 613 programmes and 1,121 adverts and trailers, making a total of 25,210 part or full-minute intervals.

Of the 613 programmes broadcast, a third (34 per cent) contained some tobacco content.

More than two-thirds (69 per cent) of tobacco content featured in the three hours prior to the 9pm watershed, which is meant to mark the switch to less family-friendly material that is not suitable for children.

Previous studies have suggested that children in the UK watch an average of 2.5 hours of TV a day, enabling the study team to estimate the total number of tobacco images transmitted to young people every week.

Based on the programme content and young people's appetite for TV-watching, the UK's children were exposed to approximately 59 million instances of tobacco imagery or messages, 16 million of actual tobacco use, and three million tobacco brand appearances every week.

The appearance of real brands in fictional programmes like soap operas is also "of questionable legality", and the guidelines should be made more stringent to protect children, the study's authors said.

"We would recommend that future television programming remove gratuitous depictions of tobacco, particularly actual smoking and tobacco branding, from programmes aimed at young people, or, in the UK, scheduled before the 2100 watershed," they added.

Jean King, Cancer Research UK's director of tobacco control, pointed out that the amount of tobacco advertising that UK children see has dropped dramatically. "Billboard, magazine and TV advertising have all been banned," she said.

"But this research shows that there's still a substantial amount of smoking and tobacco related imagery on TV. There's little doubt that the more tobacco marketing children are exposed to, the more 'normal' smoking appears. It's important we protect young people from tobacco marketing and reduce the opportunities for the industry to advertise their lethal product."

This included tobacco packs, said King.

"Fewer opportunities to market their product has meant the tobacco industry has developed clever new ways to attract new customers," she said, pointing to the slick designs pack designs with "glitzy patterns and images," that help distract from the dangers of smoking.

The UK Government is considering legislation on standardising tobacco packaging. It was recently reported the decision to go ahead with removing all tobacco branding has been made, but there has been no official confirmation.

Copyright Press Association 2013