57 years ago today, “The Flintstones” made their television debut. I loved them, and was far from alone. It ran in prime time for six seasons, and prior to “The Simpsons” it was the most successful animated series in television history. To this day, it is still tremendously popular and important part in American cultural history. Looking back, it also shows us how far we have come in promoting health and wellness to our young people on television.
Like many shows of the era, for the first two seasons, “The Flintstones” was sponsored by a cigarette company, Winston. They regularly showed commercials for Winston, including one in which Wilma and Betty did all the chores. Fred and Barney decide that they felt bad about watching the women do all the work, so they venture to the backyard where they will not have to watch and can enjoy their smokes peacefully. The show also featured advertisements for Busch beer which showed Fred and Barney swigging on a few cold ones.
“The Flintstones” were far from alone in pushing cigarettes on their viewers. “I Love Lucy” and many others also featured advertisements and episodes showing the stars smoking. The nightly news shows were also often sponsored by cigarette companies. Many times, endorsements for smoking were given by Doctors!
In 1970, advertising smoking in television commercials was banned by the “Federal Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act.” It did not go into effect until January 2, 1971 as part of a compromise to allow cigarette advertisements during that year’s college football bowl games. The last ever commercial promoting smoking aired at 11:59 P.M. on January First.
Even though the advertising was banned, characters on T.V. continued to smoke well into the 1990s. Due to a 2002 study which outlined the effect characters smoking had on the nation’s youth, and pressure from social activists, networks then began to phase out most characters that smoked. It is now very rare to see the protagonist in any T.V. show smoke, even though there are some exceptions. Most of the time when you see a smoker on television now, it is the person you are not supposed to like anyway.
Why does this matter? Research shows that the more often young people are exposed to smoking in real life and television, the more likely they are to smoke themselves. Seeing the “cool” characters smoke on television made the habit more appealing to young people, and the cigarette companies were not shy about capitalizing on this. Smoking rates have dropped dramatically in the last few decades, and television deserves some of the credit. According to a report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, smoking amongst teens has dropped to the lowest level since they began documenting it in 1975.
Worldwide, smoking is actually on the rise. In America, it has dropped from 21 percent of adults in 1997 to just under 15 percent now. Health officials expect it to drop to 12 percent by 2020.
There are plenty of other good reasons for the decline in cigarette use in America. Government seems to make laws nearly every year making it tougher on smokers. Laws like banning them on airplanes, with children in the car, in public places, and increasing taxes have all been effective. Just as important have been the educational programs aimed to sour kids on tobacco have multiplied both in and out of classrooms.
It is hard to tell just how much the decline in the promotion of smoking in America is due to the responsible changes made by television, but it had to help. So to television, I say something it doesn’t hear much: “Thank you for a job well done.”