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Alcohol, tobacco and junk food common on reality TV shows

Alcohol and tobacco products, in addition to foods high in sugar and fat, appear frequently in reality TV programmes, according to a study by researchers at Nottingham University in the United Kingdom, published in the Journal of Public Health. Alcohol appeared in 98% of episodes studied from 20 reality TV shows in English-speaking countries.

Previous research 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, according to material produced by Oxford University Press and reproduced in EurekAlert on 5 May 2022.

Despite regulatory controls around the display of tobacco and alcohol on television, such imagery remains widespread in prime-time television programmes. Reality TV, while not specifically targeted at children, appeals to young people by providing a form of escapism and aspirational realism for viewers.

Researchers at Nottingham University and Nottingham Trent University looked at a sample of 20 reality TV programmes broadcast from 2019 to 2020 in English-speaking countries to try 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 junk food imagery, including actual use, implied use, 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 high in sugar and fat appeared in 13% of intervals viewed across 88% of episodes studied.

While tobacco branding was rare, researchers found alcohol branding (149 different brands) in 46% of episodes. The most common was Peroni, appearing 101 times. The researchers found junk food branding (93 different brands) in 39% of episodes. The most brand was Coca Cola, which appeared 87 times.

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 24,000, 12.6 million and 21.4 million, to children respectively.

Researchers found significantly more tobacco and junk food content on broadcast TV than on Netflix programmes, although 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 programmes from the United Kingdom compared to reality TV made in the United States or Australia.

“The current study provides evidence that reality TV programmes are a significant source of exposure to tobacco, alcohol, and junk food imagery,” said the paper’s lead author, Alexander B Barker.

“These programmes are widely viewed and seen by young people and 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.”


Study details

Exposure to tobacco, alcohol and ‘Junk food’ content in reality TV programmes broadcast in the UK between August 2019–2020 

Alexander B Barker,  Jaspreet Bal,  Laura Ruff and Rachael L Murray

Author affiliations: University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University, United Kingdom.

Published in the Journal of Public Health on 5 May 2022.


Exposure to alcohol, tobacco and foods high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) content in media is a risk factor for smoking, alcohol use and HFSS consumption in young people. We report an analysis of tobacco, alcohol and HFSS content in a sample of reality TV programmes broadcast on TV and video-on-demand services throughout a 1-year period.


We used 1-min interval coding to quantify content in all episodes of 20 different reality TV programmes between August 2019 and August 2020 and estimated population exposure to a sample of these programmes using viewing data and UK population estimates.


We coded 13,244 intervals from 264 episodes. Tobacco content appeared in 227 intervals (2%) across 43 episodes (2%), alcohol in 5,167 intervals (39%) across 258 episodes (98%) and HFSS in 1,752 intervals (13%) across 234 episodes (88%). A sample of 15 series delivered ~157.4 million tobacco, 3.5 billion alcohol and 1.9 billion HFSS gross impressions to the UK population, including 24,000, 12.6 million and 21.4 million, to children, respectively.


Tobacco, alcohol and HFSS content are common in reality TV programmes. These programmes deliver exposure to tobacco, alcohol and HFSS imagery, which are a potential driver of tobacco use, alcohol use and HFSS consumption in young people.


Oxford University Press story on EurekAlert – Alcohol, tobacco, and junk food common on reality TV shows (Open access)


Journal of Public Health article – Exposure to tobacco, alcohol and ‘Junk food’ content in reality TV programmes broadcast in the UK between August 2019–2020 (Open access)


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