When did smoking become such a no-no on American TV?

Network TV specifically.

I just read about the Constatine(Hellblazer) TV show hitting NBC next year. Anyway, in the comic and the movie version, Constatine is a big time chain smoker. Like, it’s one of his traits.

They apparently have to negotiate and discuss this aspect of his personality with the network to see if it is OK to show this on a regular basis.

When did this become a thing?

Cigarette advertising on T.V. was banned in 1971, but smoking among young people continued to rise. After a 2002 study found that watching television was directly correlated with young people starting to smoke, the networks began eliminating smoking from most programs.

It is rare to see a US television series after 1995 where any of the main characters are smoking. After that time, peripheral or “evil” characters smoked, but not the protagonists or the regular cast. After 2002, the only smoking that you routinely saw on television was on programs made for basic and premium cable. Strangely, this included historical dramas where characters would have been smoking.

Now, the only place that you’ll see a great deal of smoking on network television is during reruns of series aired prior to 1995. It’s not uncommon on basic cable series (Skyler White and Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad are two examples of this) and there seems to only be minor restrictions on premium cable (for example kids or teenagers NEVER smoke on premium cable series)

You NEVER see people smoking during commercials on US television.

For a long time we could always spot the bad guy - he was unshaven and smoked. In the old days the bad guys wore black hats. These days, it’s a bit harder - you can usually assume that it’s not the black guy, especially if they look guilty at first. It’s rarely the disabled character but fat people are often likely suspects.

Was it ever, really, all that common? Even in the 50’s, the smoking population on television was under-represented. In the Twilight Zone Rod Serling had his perennial cigarette, yet smoking was rare amongst the actual actors during the story.

Moderator Action

While the OP is factual, it concerns television content and is therefore probably better suited Cafe Society as this will allow a more broad range of answers.

Moving thread from General Questions to Cafe Society.

After the tobacco companies were exposed as having lied about their knowledge of the health risks of smoking, the first real backlash occurred. Smoking ads were banned which was huge because they were major advertisers on television.

It’s interesting to watch a movie like “Good Night and Good Luck”. It was about the newscaster Edward R. Murrow.


The movie realistically portrayed Murrow who constantly smoked on camera during his newscasts. Even as television now depicts behavior that was forbidden at that time, smoking on live camera while doing a newscast is beyond the imagination today.

The Live Action TV section of TV Tropes Smoking is Cool article lists numerous instances of smoking on T.V. prior to the phaseout. All four of the lead characters on I Love Lucy smoked, as did Sergeant Joe Friday, and even Andy Taylor on occasion.

It depends upon the story. There are a number of stories where people are sitting around in an office setting and smoking. Also, many of the military members who aren’t in combat roles are often smoking during the series.

I vote that you should move it to Cafe Society as well.

I’m not sure where this thread will end up, but smoking among many of the characters was fairly common on Showtime’s Queer as folk between 2000-2005. It was rated TV-MA. The show has been rerun on the Logo network with some of the sex scenes but, but not sure if they cut any of those ‘horrible’ cigarettes out.

The show is complex, but I can’t say that any of the main characters were bad guys.

It was also a premium cable series.

What usually happens (I have noticed) is that network or free television trims the scenes which include smoking unless it would adversely the program by doing so. The original Law & Order is noticeable for this. Several scenes which included cops,witnesses or judges standing outside smoking have been subtly trimmed to make it seem that the main characters are simply outside speaking to the person

Another exception to this would be Burn Notice. Sharon Gless’ character, Madeleine is one of the main characters, a protagonist and pretty much a chain smoker. It is attention catching because it is so rare though.

Two examples stand out. The 1966-68 Batman TV series, ostensibly aimed at kids, had the Penguin, played by Burgess Meredith, constantly smoking a cigarette in a holder. Granted, the Penguin was an evil-doer. But then there was Lt. Columbo and his ever-present cigar.

Burn Notice is a basic cable series.
Also, you’ll notice that Sharon Gless’ smoking is actually trimmed in episodes which appear in syndication on “free” television.

Of course there was Cigarette Smoking Man on X-Files.

The main characters on How I Met Your Mother have all been shown smoking cigarettes.

And Scully herself in one ep I believe where she was becoming eeeeeeevilllll (Or something).

Nowadays, like people not putting on their seatbelts, everything comes to a halt when I see old movies and people light up in the restaurant or on the plane.

I think Leah Remini would occasionally smoke casually on her show, same with Maura Tierney on Newsradio.

The film writer Joe Eszterhas got some credit for helping to get the anti-smoking ball rolling as well; he was diagnosed with throat cancer and in 2002 wrote an editorial for the NY Times where he lamented his part in helping Hollywood glamorize smoking.

They did more than that, they actively pitched for the cigarette companies. (And if that wasn’t enough of a mindf*** for you, check out this Winston Cigarette ad.

Ironically, Burgess Meredith was a non-smoker, and his character’ persistent cigarette bothered the hell out of him. He has stated in interviews that the trademark “waugh! waugh! waugh!” that he bellowed was his way of covering up his persistent coughing from the smoke!

An odd trope (dunno if there’s a name for it, but I wouldn’t doubt it) is the late 80s / early 90s sitcom plot of regular characters who have never been depicted smoking suddenly ‘relapsing’ into smoking, and the characters retroactively being described as formerly heavy smokers who’d given it up. The plot would then follow the travails of the characters as they attempted to ‘quit again.’ Rebecca on “Cheers”, Chandler on “Friends” and Hank AND Peggy Hill on “King of the Hill” among others were all retroactive relapsers