October 2, 2019

Media giants sandbag Senators on child-safety data

Last April, with nicotine addiction soaring among American schoolchildren, three U.S. Senators quizzed America's media companies about their own dependence on tobacco.

The letters from Senators Blumenthal, Markey and Van Hollen posed two simple questions: In the past five years, how much of your entertainment programming contained tobacco imagery? How many kids have seen it? 

The Senators addressed thirteen companies.* Only Google provided any tobacco content and viewer data.

Some companies boasted of having tobacco depiction policies but didn't say how effective they were. Other companies claimed — falsely — that the movie and TV ratings already treat tobacco as a factor.

These non-answers are all the more baffling because every media company keeps records of the films and TV shows it releases and gathers demographic data on its audiences. This is routine management and marketing information.

Also, for feature films, tobacco content has been documented in every top-grossing title since 2002, freely available in a database cited repeatedly by the CDC and World Health Organization. None of the companies refers to this vital information, let alone relates it to films it offers on-demand.

Why keep child-safety data from Senators? Two possibilities:

Possibility #1 | The media companies don't want to acknowledge they know how much toxic tobacco remains in their entertainment products, for legal reasons. After all, state Attorneys General warned companies years ago that they knowingly harm kids each time they put smoking on screen.

Possibility #2 | The companies don’t want to reveal how much of kids' exposure comes from R-rated and TV-MA material, for political reasons. That might alert parents to the fact that film and TV ratings are industry-controlled and primarily serve industry goals.

Some of America’s top U.S. media companies have had a long, documented history of collaborating with the tobacco industry, through decades of cross-promotion, advertising and product placement. For nearly two decades, the MPAA (the major studios' trade group) has repeatedly refused to update its R-rating to protect young audiences from physical harm.

Direct result? Toxic tobacco images including tobacco brands and e-cigarettes appear in scores of top-grossing films each year — more than 40 percent of them kid-rated — and in the streaming video series most popular with young viewers.

Even before the vaping explosion, the CDC projected two million additional tobacco deaths due to kids’ exposure to tobacco in films alone. Now, with millions of more kids struggling to resist nicotine addiction, disability and early death, the entertainment industry’s refusal to share child-safety data is worse than coy. It's physically dangerous.

The only apology is action. As forty-three state Attorneys General wrote many of these same companies in August 2019, the solutions are known:

• Reserve future tobacco imagery for R-rated films and TV-MA programming, essentially ending tobacco promotion in kid-rated entertainment.

• Adopt specific safeguards when marketing existing films and shows with tobacco and nicotine imagery, of any rating, on any media platform.

These forward-looking, non-punitive proposals are the best offer the traditional media conglomerates and their web-based competitors are going to see. They should drop their shovels, climb out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves, and take the deal.


* Amazon, Apple, AT&T, CBS, Disney, Fox, Google, Hulu, Lionsgate, NBCUniversal, Netflix, Sony, Viacom (Paramount).


The U.S. Senators’ letter and each company's response, 2019 (PDF)

UCSF spreadsheet analyzing companies' responses (Excel)

Updated: 10-3-19

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