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Netflix Pledges to Cut Back Smoking Depictions in Original Productions After Group Blasts ‘Stranger Things’

Depictions of tobacco in the most popular TV shows among young people surged nearly fourfold in the past year — and Netflix’s “Stranger Things” season 2 was the worst offender, according to a new report from anti-smoking group Truth Initiative.

In response, Netflix said that going forward, all new shows it commissions with ratings of TV-14 or below (and all films rated PG-13 or below) will exclude smoking and e-cigarette use, except for “reasons of historical or factual accuracy.” The streamer also said new projects with higher ratings will not depict smoking or e-cigarette use “unless it’s essential to the creative vision of the artist or because it’s character-defining (historically or culturally important).”

“Netflix strongly supports artistic expression,” a company spokesman said in a statement to Variety. “We also recognize that smoking is harmful and when portrayed positively on screen can adversely influence young people.”

In addition, Netflix said, starting later this year, smoking information will be included as part of its ratings on the service.

D.C.-based Truth Initiative timed the report’s for the return of “Stranger Things,” with season 3 of the ’80s-set supernatural teen drama scheduled to hit Thursday (July 4). Per Truth Initiative’s analysis, season 2 of the show had a 44% increase in smoking depictions from the freshman run, climbing from 182 in season 1 to 262 in the second season. “Stranger Things” season 1 had the highest incidence of tobacco depictions among the shows in Truth Initiative’s inaugural study on the topic last year.

Other Netflix shows popular among viewers aged 15-24 also had much higher rates in their most recent seasons, the report found, including “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” season 4 (292 tobacco depictions, up from nine), “Orange Is the New Black” season 6 (233 tobacco depictions, up from 45) and “House of Cards” season 6 (54 tobacco depictions, up from 41).

Netflix isn’t alone in the TV biz: 12 of the 13 television shows most popular with the 15-24 demo show smoking prominently, according to Truth Initiative. The org cited data from the Office of the Surgeon General finding young people who have the most exposure to movies that depict smoking are about twice as likely to begin smoking as those who get the least exposure.

Truth Initiative also cited tobacco imagery in other youth-rated shows, including Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Hulu’s “Gap Year,” ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” and “Modern Family,” and FX’s “American Horror Story.”

“Content has become the new tobacco commercial,” Robin Koval, CEO/president of Truth Initiative, said in a statement. “We’re seeing a pervasive reemergence of smoking imagery across screens that is glamorizing and re-normalizing a deadly addiction and putting young people squarely in the crosshairs of the tobacco industry.”

Meanwhile, the MPAA has rejected calls for movies to receive an R rating if they show anything beyond limited tobacco use. “While the [ratings] system strongly weighs the presence of any tobacco-related imagery, it is not designed to impose societal change or censor filmmakers,” MPAA chairman and CEO Charles Rivkin wrote in a letter last year to senators who had urged the industry org to revise its ratings policies related to smoking depictions.

Truth Initiative, among other steps to counter what it identifies as an uptick in smoking depictions in entertainment, wants states to change their film-production subsidy policies to provide tax and other incentives for productions that do not promote tobacco use. Formerly known as Legacy, the group was formed by and is funded under the landmark 1998 settlement agreement among major U.S. tobacco companies and 46 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and five territories.

More than 480,000 Americans die annually from diseases related to cigarette smoking, equating to about 1,300 deaths per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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