May 26, 2017

Netflix "not worried" about smoking in kids' shows?

Netflix should worry. In a May 22, 2017 interview, Barry Sonnenfeld, who produces the popular children's series A Series of Unfortunate Events for Netflix, talked about the company's complacent approach:

"I was very worried with the last book we did, The Miserable the last two episodes of the first season. The villain, Sir [Don Johnson], smokes a cigar. I said, "Look, it's one thing to have [children in the show] and it's another to mistreat them, but no one ever likes anyone smoking in a children's show," and Netflix said, "We're not worried."

Sonnenfeld added:

"Listen, I had to debate Hillary Clinton on The Today Show in 1997 because I had the little worm aliens in Men in Black smoking cigarettes. She felt it was encouraging other aliens to smoke, I guess she was right. Netflix is very brave and supportive…"

Supportive of what? Barry Sonnenfeld directed three PG-13 Men in Black movies between 1997 and 2012. All three films featured credited actors, extras and CGI aliens smoking cigarettes and cigars, including co-star Tommy Lee Jones and Frank the pug, a character so popular he was licensed to a teddy bear company. (Amazon still lists 25 different Men in Black toys approved for 2-7 year olds.)

Party scene in MIB 3 (2012)

Men in Black also displayed the Marlboro cigarette brand along with Sprint, Burger King, RayBan, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Jack Daniels, Hamilton watches and Victoria's Secret.

Marlboro brand in MIB 1 (1997) and MIB 2 (2002)

Other brands featured in Men in Black franchise

Big reach. Men in Black (Sony, 1997) delivered nearly 700 million tobacco impressions to US movie audiences. Men in Black 2 (Sony, 2002) delivered 500 million more. In 2012, the year the US Surgeon General concluded that exposure to on-screen smoking causes kids to smoke, Men in Black 3 (Sony, 2012) delivered more than 600 million tobacco impressions to US moviegoers. 

Long memory. Five years after Sonnenfeld's 1997 Today Show "debate" with Hillary Clinton, Men in Black 2 showed an alien worm reading a New York tabloid with the headline: "Bill catches Hillary with space alien! 'I thought she was gay,' says stunned ex-Prez." The same films pasted a bumpersticker on an alien's refrigerator: "Harassing me about my smoking may be hazardous to your health." 

MIB 2 (2002) messages after a debate with Hillary Clinton about smoking

Still smoking after 20 years. In 2017, two decades after the first Men in Black movie, the last two episodes of A Series of Unfortunate Events feature the character Sir (Don Johnson) puffing a large cigar every time he appears, including in scenes with the imperiled Baudelaire children. "I hate the things, but I can't stop smoking 'em," he says. "I'm the boss!" Each of these episodes features 30+ tobacco incidents.

In two earlier episodes — which Sonnenfeld himself directed but doesn't mention in the interview — the series' arch-villain Count Olaf (Neal Patrick Harris), masquarading as Captain Sham, carries and smokes a pipe that doesn't appear in the original book. Netflix spotlights Sham lighting his pipe in online promos. Each of these two episodes feature 50+ tobacco incidents.

Count Olaf (Neal Patrick Harris) and Sir (Don Johnson) smoke in Season 1 of A Series of Unfortunate Events

Why should Netflix, Amazon and other ambitious media companies worry about bringing Hollywood's tobacco baggage on board?

Because Hollywood has a long, documented history of collaborating with the tobacco industry and serving its marketing interests. And because the world is alert to the danger. With 180 signatories around the globe, Article 17 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control obligates nations to block cross-border tobacco promotion in entertainment products. That makes tobacco a poison pill in any media company's worldwide distribution plans. 

Clear the air with Netflix. Write the CEO. Tell him a million lives are at stake in this generation of kids, in the United States alone. Ask him to do two things:

1] Keep tobacco imagery out Netflix original productions accessible to children and adolescents;

2] Address the proven health risk from tobacco imagery in films and shows that Netflix licenses from others — through effective parental controls, specific tobacco warnings at point-of-purchase, and strong anti-tobacco spots before viewings, regardless of age-classification.

Write: Mr. Reed Hastings, Netflix, 1000 Winchester Circle, Los Gatos, CA 95032. (Attention: Tobacco dangers)


MIB films: Produced by Laurie MacDonald and Walter F. Parkes; Steven Spielberg, executive producer.

Interview source: Hoai-Tran Bui. Barry Sonnenfeld on 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' Season 2., 22 May 2017. Available at

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