Smoking on NZ television – Expert reaction

It might be time to consider an ‘R’ rating for TV shows that depict smoking, say the authors of research showing there has been little change in smoking on our screens over the past decade

A new study reports the total number of scenes featuring tobacco on prime-time, free-to-air NZ television across one week and finds almost a third of programmes featured tobacco imagery and of these over 80 percent portrayed tobacco use in a neutral or positive light.

Comparing their results with an identical study from 2004, the authors saw little change in these figures, although the total number of scenes featuring tobacco had decreased.

Writing in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, the authors conclude, “While tobacco imagery cannot be banned in any meaningful way, legislation could be introduced requiring programming with tobacco imagery to be R-rated”.

The research is published as the Government unveils its plans to require branding and marketing to be removed from cigarette packages and follows a Budget 2016 announcement of a ten per cent hike in the tax on tobacco.

The SMC collected the following expert commentary.

Assoc Prof George Thomson, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“Television remains a powerful influence for normalisation, and having tobacco and smoking images on it increase the risk that smoking will remain a ‘normal’ activity. The removal or countering of smoking and tobacco images in the media is a major neglected area for tobacco control, and a tobacco and smoking R rating appears to be a practical and effective way of intervening for health.”

Assoc Prof Nick Wilson, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“This is a valuable study – especially given that it has considered the trend over a decade. The persisting high level of neutral/pro-tobacco content on NZ television is indeed highly problematic, especially for a country with a Smokefree 2025 goal. The problem is even worse on some particular channels such as music videos on television (as per other NZ research).

“The authors make thoughtful suggestions around counterbalancing tobacco imagery with extra Quitline advertisements and other tobacco-control advertisements. This could be a requirement for all free-to-air television in New Zealand. But perhaps there is also a case for an outright ban on tobacco imagery during children’s peak television viewing hours.”