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Research reveals ‘millions’ of chances for young people to view alcohol, tobacco and junk food on reality TV shows

Despite regulatory controls around the display of tobacco and alcohol on television, a study led by Nottingham Trent University has found that reality TV programmes viewed by young people still frequently feature alcohol and tobacco products, in addition to foods high in sugar and fat (HFSS).

A girl reflects on a choice while healthy and not healthy things are offered to her from different sides
Young people are being exposed to alcohol, tobacco and junk food on TV despite regulation

The research, which features in the Journal of Public Health, published by Oxford University, follows on from previous work which showed that media exposure to alcohol, tobacco, and foods high in fat or sugar is a risk factor for smoking, alcohol use, and unhealthy eating in young people.

However, such imagery remains widespread in prime-time television programs, including reality TV which appeals to young people by providing a form of escapism and aspirational realism for viewers.

As part of the Cancer Research UK funded study, psychologists looked at a sample of 20 reality TV programs broadcast from 2019 to 2020 in English-speaking countries to assess the potential exposure children have to tobacco, alcohol, and foods high in sugar and fat on popular television shows.

They measured the number of one-minute intervals containing tobacco, alcohol, and HFSS imagery, including actual use, implied use, tobacco, alcohol or HFSS-related materials, and product-specific branding. They found that tobacco content appeared in 2% of intervals across 2% of episodes viewed. Alcohol appeared across 39% of intervals and 98% of the episodes studied. Foods which are high in sugar and fat appeared in 13% of intervals viewed across 88% of episodes studied.

Whilst tobacco branding was rare, alcohol branding was seen in 46% of episodes, with a total of 149 different brands being seen. HFSS branding was seen in 39% of episodes with a total of 93 brands being seen.

The researchers combined the data from a sub-sample of 15 series with audience viewing figures and population data and estimate that these series delivered approximately 157.4 million tobacco, 3.5 billion alcohol, and 1.9 billion HFSS impressions to the UK population, including 24 thousand, 12.6 million and 21.4 million, to children respectively.

Findings reveal significantly more tobacco and junk food content on broadcast TV than on Netflix programs, though there was no significant difference in alcohol content. The researchers also found no substantial variance in the amount of tobacco use and branding shown between the different countries studied, but they did find significantly more intervals containing alcohol and junk food content in programs from the United Kingdom compared to reality TV made in the United States or Australia.

Lead researcher Dr Alex Barker, lecturer in Psychology at NTU’s School of Social Sciences, said: “There is now strong evidence to suggest that exposure to tobacco, alcohol and HFSS advertising and other content in the media increases subsequent use and consumption in adolescents. The current study provides evidence that reality TV programmes are a significant source of exposure to tobacco, alcohol, and HFSS imagery.

“Whilst tobacco content was rare, these programmes are widely viewed and seen by young people and due to the nature of reality TV, with its inspirational role models, is likely influencing smoking, drinking and food consumption choices in young people. The current regulations around the depiction of this imagery in popular programmes are not sufficient and need revising to prevent youth exposure.”

  • Notes for editors

    Press enquiries please contact Helen Breese, Public Relations Manager, on telephone +44 (0)115 848 8751, or via email.

    To request a copy of the study, please contact: Daniel Luzer via

    DOI: 10.1093/pubmed/fdac046


    About Nottingham Trent University

    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) received the Queens Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2021 for cultural heritage science research. It is the second time that NTU has been bestowed the honour of receiving a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its research, the first being in 2015 for leading-edge research on the safety and security of global citizens.

    NTU was awarded Outstanding Support for Students 2020 (Times Higher Education Awards). It was the University of the Year 2019 (Guardian University Awards, UK Social Mobility Awards), Modern University of the Year 2018 (Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide) and University of the Year 2017 (Times Higher Education Awards).

    NTU is the 5th largest UK institution by student numbers, with over 33,000 students and more than 4,000 staff located across five campuses. It has an international student population of 4,000 and an NTU community representing around 160 countries.

    In the past 15 years, NTU has invested £450 million in tools, technology and facilities.

    NTU is in the UK’s top 10 for number of applications and ranked first for accepted offers (2019 UCAS UG acceptance data) It is also among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    75% of NTU students go on to graduate-level employment or graduate-entry education / training within fifteen months of graduating (Guardian University Guide 2021).

    NTU is 4th globally (and 3rd in the UK) for sustainability in the 2021 UI Green Metric University World Rankings (out of more than 900 participating universities).

Research reveals ‘millions’ of chances for young people to view alcohol, tobacco and junk food on reality TV shows

Published on 4 May 2022
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Social Sciences

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