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Netflix Adopts New Policy After Stranger Things Backlash

Netflix has a bad habit to kick.

After a recent report revealed that depictions of smoking in its original content have tripled in just the last year, the streamer has declared that it will adopt a new, much more restrictive policy in regard to such depictions going forward. The move comes just days after the release of the third season of Stranger Things, which happens to be the most egregious culprit (via Entertainment Weekly). 

However, don't expect your Stranger Things faves to give up smoking. Netflix's new policy only impacts new programs the steamer commissions. Existing shows — including our beloved Stranger Things — will not be affected. 

The report was released by Truth Initiative, a non-profit organization which — among other things — tracks the appearances of tobacco products (mainly boxes of cigarettes) in major media. It's not the first time that the organization has had occasion to call out Netflix, or even Stranger Things, for that matter. A similar report released in March of last year took the streamer to task for featuring an astounding 182 "smoking incidents" across the ten episodes which comprised the show's first season, with other original offerings such as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black also coming under fire. 

The earlier report also pointed out the troubling fact that streaming services — which aren't bound to the same content standards that govern traditional broadcast television — are extremely popular among young people ages 15 to 24, an age group coveted as potential customers by tobacco companies. The new analysis pointed out that the trend of featuring characters who light up on a regular basis hasn't just continued, it's exploded.

"Smoking on the small screen has gone from common to nearly unavoidable," it read in part. "The popularity of streaming combined with the pervasive rise of smoking in episodic content points to an emerging threat to a new generation of young Americans... Based on estimated viewership of these programs, results suggest that approximately 28 million young people were exposed to tobacco through television and streaming programs in these most popular shows alone. That exposure is a significant public health concern."

When the issue first reared its head last year, Netflix issued what could fairly be described as a non-response. "While streaming entertainment is more popular than ever, we're glad that smoking is not," a spokesperson for the streamer said at the time. "We're interested to find out more about the study."

This new missive, however, appears to have gotten the streaming giant's attention. Even as viewers were watching Stranger Things' Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) puffing his face off throughout the latest batch of episodes, Netflix was putting together a detailed statement, which it released to EW.

"Netflix strongly supports artistic expression. We also recognize that smoking is harmful and when portrayed positively on screen can adversely influence young people," the statement read. "Going forward, all new projects that we commission with ratings of TV-14 or below for series or PG-13 or below for films, will be smoking and e-cigarette free — except for reasons of historical or factual accuracy."

The statement also revealed that, in addition to making a concerted effort to cut down on the butts, there would be changes forthcoming to its content warnings. 

"For new projects with higher ratings, there'll be no smoking or e-cigarettes unless it's essential to the creative vision of the artist or because it's character-defining (historically or culturally important)," it read. "In addition, starting later this year, smoking information will be included as part of our ratings on the Netflix service so our members can make informed choices about what they watch."

It's an appropriate, if somewhat belated, response in the face of a troubling bit of data: after nearly two decades of steadily falling numbers, use of tobacco products among teens has recently spiked again. To be clear, nobody is pinning the spike on Netflix; it's quite clear that the reason for it is the soaring popularity of e-cigarettes such as the Juul, which have seen an explosion in use by teens and young adults while the numbers for combustible cigarettes have remained about the same.

But it's encouraging that Netflix has come around to a little self-analysis in its depictions of smoking onscreen, and hopefully, other streamers will follow suit. It's worth noting that that precipitous decades-long drop in the number of teen smokers came during a time when references to tobacco products were being carefully stripped away from broadcast television shows and movies, and it's certainly possible that a careless attitude on the part of streaming services — which now field more original series than broadcast networks for the first time ever — could contribute to a plateauing or even a reversal of the trend.

At any rate, we'll see how Netflix's statement translates to action over the next year or so. Here's hoping that the next time Truth Initiative puts the streamer under the microscope, the organization will have some praise to offer.