Netflix Curbs Tobacco Use Onscreen, But Not Pot. What's Up With That?

Aug 17, 2019

When is it wrong to show cigarette smoking on television, but OK to depict people smoking cannabis products, particularly in programming popular among young teenagers?

Netflix recently announced it would curb depictions of cigarette smoking in original programming intended for general audiences, after a Truth Initiative study showed its monster summer hit, Stranger Things, featured more tobacco use than any other program on streaming, broadcast or cable. There's tobacco in every single episode.

Tobacco advertising has been banned on TV and in the movies for decades; when it comes to characters smoking cigarettes onscreen, restrictions are largely self-imposed. The Walt Disney Company is one of the few studios with a comprehensive and public policy about depicting tobacco use in movies.

But what about smoking pot? The Netflix show On My Block is rated TV-14, for audiences, aged 14 and older — exactly the same rating as Stranger Things. The very first scene of On My Block, about high school students in Los Angeles, features kids doing bong hits at a party. There's a loveable, pot-smoking grandma.

And the Netflix romantic comedy, Always Be My Maybe is rated PG-13. One of its main characters smokes weed.

This troubles Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who for years has studied the cardiovascular effects of tobacco smoke, and the effects of tobacco marketing — direct and indirect.

"Rating a film for 14 year olds that's promoting substance abuse — it's like the peak of risk," he says. Glantz says although pot is widely regarded as holistic and harmless, compared to cigarettes, that's not accurate.

"Marijuana is not harmless," he says. "Secondhand marijuana smoke has the same kind of adverse effects on your blood vessels that smoking a cigarette does. Chemically it's not all that different from cigarette smoke, except that the psychoactive agent is different."

Study after study has shown a correlation between kids' exposure to cigarettes in the media and their later use of tobacco, Glantz says. There aren't as many similar studies about pot, although some have begun to emerge.

But as pot legalization gains momentum, using it is becoming normalized in popular culture. A couple of years ago, Netflix showed up at a pop-up event at a West Hollywood dispensary and provided weed varieties based on some of its most popular shows.

These days, cannabis — as opposed to tobacco — can help make a certain kind of company seem cool, says Washington Post opinion writer Alyssa Rosenberg. "Marijuana has sort of a better lobbying message right now than tobacco does," she observes.

But Rosenberg points out that for much of the 20th century, Big Tobacco actively — and successfully — promoted cigarettes in movies and on TV. "They were planting stories about how Paul Newman was learning to light two cigarettes at a time for a role," she says. "They supplied green rooms [with cigarettes]. They focused on trying to get stars to smoke on-air during tapings of The Merv Griffin Show. They tried to push fashion editorials to show models smoking."

So, Rosenberg says, it's perhaps disingenuous for filmmakers or studios to argue, as Netflix does today, that smoking onscreen is an artistic expression when much of it, historically, came out of marketing departments — product placement.

Glantz worries that kind of product placement might happen again with weed, once it becomes widely commercialized.

"And Netflix ought to be adopting a policy that, you know, is not only based on the bombproof science we have on tobacco," he says, "but brings common sense into the discussion for these other exposures."

Of course, Netflix isn't the only company with a role to play here. Other leading streaming companies haven't made public any policies about the onscreen use of tobacco or cannabis.Netflix, Hulu and Amazon did not respond to NPR's requests for comment in regards to such policies.

But earlier this month, attorneys general from 43 states and territories signed a letter sent to streaming companies, asking for better practices when it comes to showing tobacco use on screen. Some public health experts think pot should be next on the agenda.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Cigarette smoking seems almost campy in the Netflix show "Stranger Things." It's set in the 1980s. But the main characters are young teenagers, so the series was heavily criticized over all the smoking by its adult characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “STRANGER THINGS”)

WINONA RYDER: (As Joyce Byers) Oh, Jesus, Hopper.

DAVID HARBOUR: (As Jim Hopper) Brings me back old times.

RYDER: (As Joyce Byers) What?

HARBOUR: (As Jim Hopper) Well, sharing my cigarettes between...

RYDER: (As Joyce Byers) Fifth and sixth period.

HARBOUR: (As Jim Hopper) Yeah, under the steps.

SIMON: After a study showed that "Stranger Things" featured more smoking than any other show, Netflix announced a ban on cigarettes in new programs aimed at general audiences. But as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, there is plenty of pot smoking on Netflix shows and movies meant to appeal to teenagers.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The point is not that smoking pot is wrong. It's just maybe there's a double standard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: The Netflix show "On My Block" is rated TV-14 for audiences 14 and older. That's exactly the same rating as "Stranger Things." "On My Block" is about high school students. Its very first scene shows kids doing bong hits at a party. One character is a lovable pot-smoking grandma. You'll also see plenty of weed on Netflix romantic comedies like "Always Be My Maybe."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Smoking weed and dancing in front of a mirror. Want to join?

ULABY: That movie is rated for even younger audiences. This troubles Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

STANTON GLANTZ: Rating a film for 14-year-olds that's promoting substance use - it's like the peak of risk.

ULABY: Although pot is widely regarded as holistic and harmless, Glantz says that's not accurate.

GLANTZ: Marijuana is not harmless. Secondhand marijuana smoke has the same kind of adverse effects on your blood vessels as smoking a cigarette does.

ULABY: Study after study has shown a cause and effect between seeing cigarettes on screen and using tobacco, Glantz says. There aren't many similar studies about pot. But as legalization gains momentum, weed is becoming normalized in popular culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)

ULABY: Like in "Grace And Frankie" on Netflix, which is rated for older viewers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GRACE AND FRANKIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Marijuana has finally met its match - Grace Hanson.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) There's not enough weed in this world to relax that woman.

ULABY: A couple of years ago, Netflix showed up at a pop-up event at a West Hollywood dispensary and provided weed varieties based on some of its most popular shows. Pot, rather than tobacco, can help make a certain kind of company seem cool, says cultural critic Alyssa Rosenberg.

ALYSSA ROSENBERG: Marijuana has sort of a better lobbying message right now than tobacco does.

ULABY: For much of the 20th Century, Rosenberg says, Big Tobacco actively and successfully promoted cigarettes in movies and on TV.

ROSENBERG: They were planting stories about how Paul Newman was learning to light two cigarettes at a time for a role. They focused on trying to get stars to smoke on air during tapings of "The Merv Griffin Show."

ULABY: It's a little disingenuous, she says, for filmmakers or studios today to argue that smoking's an artistic expression or creative freedom when much of it, historically, was placed. Professor Stanton Glantz worries that kind of product placement might happen again with weed when it becomes widely commercialized.

GLANTZ: And Netflix ought to be adopting a policy that, you know, not only is based on the bomb-proof science we have on tobacco but brings common sense into the discussion for these other exposures.

ULABY: It's not just Netflix. Other leading streaming companies do not have policies about tobacco or pot use on screen - at least none that are public. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon did not respond to NPR's requests for comment. But earlier this month, 43 state attorneys general signed a letter sent to streaming companies asking for better practices when it comes to showing tobacco use on screen. Pot might be next on the agenda. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.