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Good to Netflix and chill, but why the tobacco still?

Read time: 5 mins
New Delhi
30 Jun 2020
Good to Netflix and chill, but why the tobacco still?

Online streaming platforms flouting tobacco imagery rules, finds study.

Sacred Games, an Indian web television thriller released in 2018, enthralled Indians and hooked them on to online streaming platforms like Netflix. Besides the captivating plot, mesmerising action and thrilling climax, the show also stood out for its numerous smoking scenes. In India, it is mandatory to have a statutory warning about the ill effects of tobacco use with any on-screen portrayal of the use of tobacco. But, how many web-only shows that do not pass stringent scrutiny of the censor board, abide by this law? A recent study found that many popular shows on most online streaming platforms do not.

The study, by researchers from HRIDAY, a not-for-profit organisation based out of New Delhi, India, assessed the use of tobacco imagery on shows relayed on web-based streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. The findings of the study, which was funded by the World Health Organisation (WHO) India, and conducted in collaboration with University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), were published in the journal Tobacco Control.

In 2005, the World Health Organisation (WHO) proposed a Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) to rein in tobacco use through various regulations. Article 13 of this treaty underlines rules for prevention of promotion and advertisement of tobacco products across all mediums as evidence points out that on-screen tobacco use influences adolescents. India too has its Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA) of 2003, and Section 5 of the act specifically prohibits all forms of advertising and promotion of tobacco products. Further, in 2012, an amendment to the (COTPA) act known as the ‘film rules’ made it mandatory for displaying health disclaimers in movies and television shows.

However, with the rise of online streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, the share of video viewership is now spread across these new entrants. Adults, aged 18-24 years, are estimated to spend close to 39 minutes per day on average on these platforms in India. About 60% of them view shows on these platforms for about five hours weekly, equivalent to two movies screenings.

“Earlier research, both global and in India, has established that smoking on the screen will influence more adolescents and youth to tobacco use”, says Dr Monika Arora.

She is the Executive Director at HRIDAY and Professor at Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) and the corresponding author of the study. “The exposure through streaming platforms will have no different effect than seen in earlier research,” she adds.

“Youth are extensively watching on-demand streaming content; there is a need to quantify the extent of tobacco imagery in the content available on these platforms,” concurs Dr Stanton A Glantz, Professor of Medicine & Director, Centre for Tobacco Control Research and Education, University of California, San Francisco. “There is no reason to expect that the dire effects of exposure to tobacco imagery in streaming shows should be any different than the effects of tobacco imagery in films,” he argues.

The researchers conducted focus group discussions with 33 students, aged between 15-24 years, from two schools and a college in New Delhi, for their favourite streaming platforms and shows. From these discussions, they selected the ten most popular shows and analysed their adherence to the tobacco imagery rules in India. They used the Breathe California approach, which counts the number of tobacco depicting scenes, including scenes where the product is seen, or used by lead or supporting actors or even in the background. The researchers also listed out scenes with tobacco brand depictions and compliance with the tobacco imagery rules.

The study found that three out of the ten selected series had more than 25 incidents of tobacco depiction or use per hour of screen time. The show The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, a popular online series among youth, had more than 100 such scenes per hour, or close to two scenes in a minute. Seven of the analysed shows had at least one tobacco incident per hour. Indian-produced series, like Mirzapur and Sacred Games, had relatively lower tobacco depicting scenes compared to the foreign-produced ones. However, there was no significant difference in the median number of tobacco incidents in foreign or Indian produced online series, although the analysis had only these two Indian shows. Four of the ten shows had incidences portraying tobacco brands during the scenes.

“Our findings indicate that both Indian and foreign-produced series show scenes with tobacco use. Those that had tobacco imagery, were not compliant with the tobacco-free film and TV rules (film and television rules) in India”, says Dr Arora.

There were no static anti-tobacco warning messages, no audio-visual disclaimers shown before the episodes and neither any anti-tobacco health spots displayed for up to 30 seconds—all these amounting to the violation of Section 5 of COTPA. These findings compare with the trends in the US and UK, where similar violations of WHO guidelines on depictions of tobacco smoking were found.

Currently, government intervention in regulating digital content is still minimal. “There is a lack of a governing or certifying body or even a law to regulate the content shown in online platforms,” laments Dr Arora. In 2019, online platforms like Netflix, Hotstar, and others signed a voluntary self-censorship code to prevent the violation of such regulations in their content. The Digital Content Complaints Council was also set up for addressing consumer complaints. The researchers, however, are sceptical about the effectiveness of these voluntary measures as the contents are currently governed by the company guidelines, which are not made public.

“This study highlights the urgent need to initiate a dialogue with digital content providers to ensure strict compliance with domestic laws and help protect vulnerable age groups like adolescents and young adults from the influence of exposure to tobacco imagery in entertainment content showcased on these platforms,” says  Dr. Henk Bekedam, WHO Representative to India. “We are confident that the report of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) Working Group, set up to develop guidelines on cross-border Tobacco Advertising, Promotion and Sponsorship (TAPS) and depiction of tobacco in the entertainment media, will provide the necessary guidance to address this critical issue,” he adds.

The findings show how the now-popular web-based screening platforms have blatantly violated regulations related to tobacco use on-screen. Hence, the researchers call for better enforcement of existing rules and updating Article 13 of the WHO-FCTC guidelines.  


This article has been run past the researchers, whose work is covered, to ensure accuracy.