Turn on any episode of Netflix’s hit show Stranger Things and you are likely to see more than a few cigarettes pop up. In fact, tobacco imagery – from smoking to cigarettes in an ashtray – was depicted one hundred and eighty two times in season one alone. The number increased in the show’s second year with depictions rising forty four percent, a total of two hundred and sixty two depictions.
The staggering numbers were released by Truth Initiative, a nonprofit anti-smoking organization. The study, titled “While You Were Streaming”, was first released in 2018, based off the 2016-2017 television season. Stranger Things had the highest depiction rate in the 2018 study. Truth Initiative focused on shows that are popular among those fifteen to twenty four years old. Examined shows include Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix), The Walking Dead (AMC), and Orange is the New Black (Netflix). While depictions counted in the study can include simple images, like cigarette packs in a store, the study found that over fifty percent of depictions included a cigarette in a character’s hand or mouth. The Truth Initiative President and CEO, Robin Koval, said in a statement, “Content has become the new tobacco commercial. We’re seeing a pervasive re-emergence of smoking imagery across screens that is glamorizing and renormalizing a deadly addiction and putting young people squarely in the crosshairs of the tobacco industry.” A follow-up to the 2018 study was released this year, and most shows increased the amount of tobacco depictions. Koval said, “I’m hopeful a second year of our report showing a situation that’s getting worse, not better, will have influence.”
In response to the study, Netflix has promised to better patrol the cigarette depictions in the Netflix Original shows. A Netflix representative said to Variety, “Netflix strongly supports artistic expression… We also recognize that smoking is harmful and when portrayed positively on screen can adversely influence young people.” For this reason Netflix will exclude smoking and e-cigarette use in all new shows it commissions with ratings of TV-14 or below and all films rated PG-13 or below. Exceptions can be made in cases of historical/factual accuracy, it is considered character defining, or if it is essential to the creative vision.
Stranger Things season three was filmed before the study was released, so it is unlikely any decisions regarding the characters’ smoking habits were impacted by either study. But who knows, maybe Hopper or Joyce will quit smoking in season four… presuming they make out of season three alive. Stranger Things season three will be available to stream on July 4th.