Netflix has described characters smoking in TV series as an “artistic expression” after a report called the streaming service out for “glamourising” cigarettes.
Smoking on screen isn’t something new. But even Bridget Jones – she of two packets of ciggies a day during the tough days of her 20s – kicked the bad habit in her latest film. And, just a couple of years ago, Love Island bosses made the decision to cut out any footage of islanders smoking following a backlash of viewers’ complaints made through Ofcom.
Now, Netflix has come under fire for “glamorousing” cigarettes in its TV shows.
It’s been 12 years since smoking inside public buildings and enclosed spaces was banned in 2007. Last year, official government statistics showed that the number of people who smoke in the UK is dropping. Almost 175,000 fewer people smoked over the previous 12 months than in the year before. And the rapid rise in substituting cigarettes with vaping kits further suggests that more people are wanting to kick the habit.
And yet, there is still debate over whether or not smoking should be allowed as an “artistic expression” in film and TV.
In response to this, US anti-smoking group Truth Initiative has published a report after analysing the volume and frequency that characters smoke on screen in Netflix programmes most popular with 15-24-year-olds.
The results found that favourite shows including Stranger Things, Orange is the New Black and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt were some of the worst offenders. In fact, there were 292 depictions of smoking in the 2016-17 season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt alone.
It also noticed a rise in smoking on screen during later seasons of the shows, suggesting that the problem is getting worse rather than better.
“Content has become the new tobacco commercial,” said Robin Koval, CEO of Truth Initiative. “We’re seeing a pervasive re-emergence of smoking imagery across screens that is glamorising and re-normalising a deadly addiction and putting young people squarely in the crosshairs of the tobacco industry.”
Netflix has responded by agreeing to exclude smoking in its original programming aimed at young people. However, smoking will still be used “for reasons of historical or factual accuracy”. It’s also said that it won’t include smoking in scenes in all types of content - regardless of the target audience’s age range - unless “it’s essential to the creative vision of the artist or because it’s character-defining (historically or culturally important)”.
The streaming service added: “Netflix strongly supports artistic expression. We also recognise that smoking is harmful and when portrayed positively on screen can adversely influence young people.“
This could affect the future of some of our characters; most notably Nadia in Russian Doll - which has a second series coming out - who is seemingly never without a cigarette casually wedged between her lips.
But, with brilliant writing behind such characters, surely we don’t need them to puff on a rank cigarette to understand who they are and connect with them.