CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Forget "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad" and the world of cable where tobacco use by our favorite television characters abounds. The depiction of smoking on prime time TV dramas is going down, and may be linked to a drop in how much adults in the real world are smoking, according to a new study published online in the journalTobacco Control.
An analysis of more than 1,800 commercial-free hours of television dramas that aired in prime time between 1955 and 2010 shows the peak of tobacco's presence, in 1961, at 4.96 instances per hour. It declined to 0.31 instances per hour during 2000-10.
Researchers say that drop may be linked to a fall in the prevalence of smoking, down to nearly two packs of cigarettes per adult per year in the U.S.
"Although tobacco portrayal in movies and TV has been linked with adolescent smoking initiation, less is known about the effects of screen-media tobacco portrayal on adults," wrote authors Patrick Jamieson and Dan Romer from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, whose study was paid for by the center and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The researchers watched and coded 1,838 hours of TV and compared the prevalence of cigarettes. They found that the depiction of tobacco products -- including smoking, purchasing, and handling -- has fallen since 1961. From 1955 to 1964, tobacco presence was 2.89 instances per hour.
Even after excluding factors such as the increase in how much cigarettes cost, the authors calculated that the impact of one less tobacco event per episode hour across two years of programming is linked to the drop in how much adults in the U.S. are smoking.
When the study authors did take into account price -- and compared the effects of price and the depiction of tobacco on consumption -- they still estimated that the drop in seeing smoking on TV had half the impact as price on lowering tobacco use.
A study published last summer in JAMA Pediatrics that focused on the visibility of tobacco in movies showed that the Master Settlement Agreement of 1998 -- which placed restrictions on the advertising, marketing and promotion of cigarettes -- had a big impact on what we see on screen.
Comparing top films from 1996-99 to films from 2000-09, researchers of that study showed a significant drop in the amount of screen time for tobacco, including characters smoking.
The study in Tobacco Control doesn't look at the depiction of smoking on cable TV, the Internet and other sources. That area -- as well as looking at trends in countries with high rates of smoking and tobacco use on TV, is worth studying further, the researchers said.
"Although tobacco use in TV dramas along with movies has declined over time, portrayal of smoking on screen media should be a focus for future adult tobacco control research and policy," the researchers wrote.