Health groups call on Netflix to honor its promise to get smoking out of its kid programming

Sixteen health organizations and four individuals wrote Netflix on June 6, reminding them that last year Netflix pledged to get rid of smoking in their programming that appeals to youth. Netflix never published a formal policy and, judging from the smoke-filled new season on Stranger Things, doesn’t care how many kids it delivers to Big Tobacco.

At PG-14, Stranger Things is rated at the prime age kids start smoking, a real gift for Imperial Tobacco and British American Tobacco, who sell Kool inside and outside the USA, and RJ Reynolds, who sells Camels.

Netflix Stranger Things features Imperial Tobacco and BAT’s Kool Season 4 Episode 1 (at 1:06:02) …
… and features RJR Camels at Season 4 Episode 4 (at 43:54)

These kind of prominent brand displays don’t happen by accident. Indeed, most companies only show brands with a product placement deal or at least a legal release from the brand owner. All the brand placement raises the obvious question of whether someone is getting paid off.

The major movie studios all have policies against such payoffs and so certify at the end of films of smoking. Netfix doesn’t as far as I know.

Netflix also doesn’t warn people about the smoking on the main page promoting Stranger Things (see above). Viewers only see the warning for a few seconds after they start playing the show.

Here is a PDF of the letter; the full text is below.

June 6, 2022

Wilmot Reed Hastings, Jr. and Theodore Sarandos, Jr., Co-CEOs

Netflix, Inc.

100 Winchester Circle

Los Gatos, CA 95032

Dear Mr. Hastings and Mr. Sarandos:

With the premiere of the latest season of Stranger Things, the undersigned organizations and individuals write today to urge Netflix to follow its pledge to keep tobacco imagery out of youth-appealing streaming content.  While we have appreciated Netflix’s statements in the press pledging that future youth-oriented and youth-appealing content would be free of tobacco imagery, we have been disappointed in the implementation of that pledge and still have not seen a written company policy. 

Decades of research on smoking in the movies has shown that onscreen tobacco imagery recruits youth to tobacco use.  As the Surgeon General’s Report on Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults reported, exposure to onscreen smoking in movies is causally related to youth smoking initiation.  Since that report, additional research has found that tobacco use on screen directly contributes to e-cigarette use among youth – and is contributing to the youth e-cigarette epidemic.  Specifically, a 2020 study established a link between smoking imagery and e-cigarette use among youth.  That study found that exposure to tobacco imagery through episodic programming can triple a young person’s odds of starting to vape.

A recent Truth Initiative report showed that while Netflix made small inroads in 2020 toward reducing tobacco imagery and even eliminating it from some shows, such as 13 Reasons Why and Fuller House, Netflix remained the company with the most tobacco depictions in programming aimed at youth.  In fact, 2020 was the fourth year in a row that Netflix was the top offender in terms of tobacco depictions – and this in a year where the usual show with the most tobacco depictions, Stranger Things did not have a 2020 season.  Further, some shows such as Umbrella Academy actually increased the amount of tobacco they showed.  In that show, tobacco was seen in every episode in its 2020 season – a tripling of tobacco depictions from the previous season.  The Queen’s Gambit also contained tobacco depictions in every episode. Most recently, in the just-released season of Stranger Things, in the first two episodes alone there are 38 tobacco incidences, including one cigarette brand name representation.  This is not the progress we were hoping for with regard to Netflix reducing tobacco incidences in youth-appealing programming.

Given the mixed progress that Netflix has made toward removing tobacco depictions from its youth-oriented programming, our coalition is reaching out to Netflix to work together to eliminate tobacco in its shows with substantial youth audience.  To that end we respectfully request the following:

  1. While we have seen statements in the press pledging to remove tobacco from youth-rated shows, we have not seen a written policy from Netflix.  Please provide that and disclose the policy on the company’s website.
  • Meet with coalition representatives to discuss in more detail the impact Netflix’s shows have on youth tobacco and nicotine use, how Netflix implements the aforementioned policy, and determine ways we can work together to eliminate tobacco from youth-oriented programming. 

We look forward to working with you to protect our nation’s youth and provide entertaining content free from tobacco and nicotine depictions. Stacey Gagosian, Managing Director of Public Policy at Truth Initiative (sgagosian@truthinitiative.org) will be reaching out to schedule a time for our coalition representatives to meet with you.  Please feel free to reach out to her if you need additional information or have questions.

Sincerely,

ORGANIZATIONS

Action on Smoking and Health

American Heart Association

American Lung Association

Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights

Breathe California Sacramento Region

BC Alliance for Healthy Living

Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids

CommonSpirit Health

Poway Unified School District

Public Health Law Center

Seventh Generation Interfaith Coalition for Responsible Investment

San Diego County Office of Education

Tobacco Free Portfolios

Trinity Health

Truth Initiative

UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education

INDIVIDUALS

Stanton A. Glantz, PhD

Professor of Medicine and Founding Director, UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education (retired)

Founding Director, Smokefree Movies/Smokefree Media

Cheryl Healton, MPA, DrPH

Dean

School of Global Health, New York University

James Sargent, MD

Professor of Pediatrics

Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth 

James Thrasher, PhD

Professor, Department of Health Promotion, Education & Behavior

Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina, Columbia

CC: Ruchi Bhowmik, VP Public Policy, Netflix

William Guidera, Director, US Federal and State Public Affairs, Netflix

Published by Stanton Glantz

Stanton Glantz is a retired Professor of Medicine who served on the University of California San Francisco faculty for 45 years. He conducts research on tobacco and cannabis control and cardiovascular disease/

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