The evolution of heroin addiction in tv

From the objectification of women in The Benny Hill Show to The Jeffersons’ reliance on racial stereotypes, numerous TV shows throughout history are undeniably products of their time. Many of these shows are no longer allowed to air, as some notable aspects would be considered insensitive, offensive, or inappropriate by today’s standards. Society has also made significant progress, evolving from these archaic views and showcasing a slightly more progressive attitude in contemporary TV shows.

In today’s blog, we embark on a fascinating deep dive into the evolving portrayal and perception of drugs, focusing on heroin, in TV shows. We will focus on comparing the trends in media in both the UK and the US.

A brief history of heroin in the UK and US

Before delving into the topic, let’s briefly explore the history of heroin in both the UK and the US.

In the UK, heroin addiction was rare before 1960, with addiction following treatment for ailments. The Home Office noticed a rise in registered addicts, jumping from 47 in 1959 to 328 by 1964. Consequently, references to heroin in UK media were scarce until the early 1960s when it appeared in the TV show ‘The Avengers’ (no, not those guys) as a focal point of criminal activity, devoid of addiction references.

In contrast, the US battled with heroin addiction long before the UK. A UN article reveals that in 1923, a staggering 98% of drug addicts from New York were heroin-dependent, making the US an early epicentre of the issue. This early challenge paved the way for heroin’s eventual depiction on US TV screens.

TV and heroin timeline


The UK…

In the 1970s, UK television favoured family-friendly content, making explicit portrayals of heroin use unsuitable for TV shows due to concerns about reaching a broad audience, especially during primetime slots. In contrast, cinema provided a more selective audience, allowing filmmakers to explore controversial topics like the heroin trade in films like “The French Connection” without accessibility concerns.

The US…

The US took a tougher stance, particularly after President Nixon declared war on drugs in the early 70s. TV shows like “Kojack” and “Starsky and Hutch” featured drug-related storylines but often portrayed law enforcement as the heroes battling the drug trade.


The UK…

During this period, UK television continued to avoid explicit depictions of heroin use, often leaning towards family-friendly content. The cautious approach to addressing controversial topics like heroin was still prevalent on TV.

The US…

In the US, TV shows and films continued to depict heroin as a dangerous and criminal substance. “Miami Vice” and “New Jack City” (both from the late 1980s) are examples of American media that portrayed the drug trade and its consequences during this era. Television maintained a more direct exploration of drug-related issues compared to UK TV, reflecting the cultural and regulatory differences between the two countries.


The UK…

During this period, the UK media began to explore heroin use more openly as societal attitudes towards drug addiction started to change. Channel 4 aired ‘Traffik,’ a 6 part drama that followed a British Home Minister whose daughter had developed a heroin addiction. The theme started to show that addiction could happen in anyone’s family, no matter what their social class. This filtered into the popular prime-time classic ‘Eastenders’ where the character Nick Cotton battles with a heroin addiction.
Dot catches Nick stealing for drugs – EastEnders – BBC

The US…

In the US, TV shows of the 1990s and 2000s continued to depict heroin as a dangerous and criminal substance. “NYPD Blue” (1993-2005) occasionally featured storylines related to heroin use, often highlighting the law enforcement efforts to combat drug-related crimes while addressing the impact on individuals and families.
NYPD Blue – Clark Arrested For Heroin


This shared perspective on heroin between the US and the UK has been reflected in their TV shows. Both countries now produce series that depict heroin addiction in a more nuanced and compassionate light, mirroring their evolving societal views. This shift has led to more realistic and empathetic portrayals of addiction in television narratives. Let’s take a closer look at some of the classics that both nations have produced;

The Sopranos (1999-2007)…

The turn of the millennium marked a significant shift in how heroin was portrayed on television, notably with the acclaimed series “The Sopranos.” This show, set in the world of organised crime, delved into the complexities of addiction, showing the main character Christopher Moltisanti’s struggles with heroin. “The Sopranos” humanised the issue and showed that even powerful figures could fall victim to addiction.

NYPD Blue – Clark Arrested For Heroin

The Wire (2002-2008)…

Another landmark series that contributed to the shift in heroin portrayal was “The Wire.” This show explored the drug trade in Baltimore, Maryland, in a gritty and realistic manner. It depicted the interconnected lives of drug users, dealers and law enforcement, shedding light on the systemic issues surrounding addiction and drug enforcement.

Skins (2007-2013)…

British TV continued to address heroin addiction with series like “Skins,” which depicted the struggles of young people with drug addiction. There was a more sympathetic approach to exploring the root causes of addiction. Storylines were usually followed throughout two seasons; the first season showed the ‘fun side’ to drugs and alcohol, with the second season showing the consequences. Skins took this approach throughout their airing history.

Breaking Bad (2008-2013)…

While not focused exclusively on heroin, “Breaking Bad” featured a character, Jesse Pinkman, who struggled with addiction to the drug. The show delved into drug manufacturing and distribution’s moral and personal consequences, portraying addiction as a complex issue.

So, what were the main reasons for this shift?

Increased realism and empathy

In the 2000s and beyond, a trend has been growing toward portraying heroin addiction more realistically and with greater empathy. Shows like “Shameless” and “Euphoria” have depicted individuals grappling with addiction in a way that humanises them and emphasises the need for support and treatment rather than vilification.

Breaking the stigma

One of the notable changes in recent years has been a greater willingness to discuss addiction openly and without judgement. Celebrities and public figures have shared their own experiences with addiction, helping to reduce the stigma surrounding the issue.

Even cartoons like South Park have enjoyed a more relaxed portrayal of heroin. In the “Guitar Queer-O” episode of South Park, the fictional video game “Heroin Hero” is designed in a way you can never truly complete.

This design choice is a subtle nod to the concept of “chasing the dragon” in heroin addiction, where users continually seek to replicate their initial high but can never achieve it again. The game’s inability to provide a sense of closure or satisfaction mirrors the cycle of chasing an elusive and destructive high associated with heroin, underlining the episode’s dark satire on addiction.

Awareness and advocacy

Recent TV shows and documentaries like “Dopesick” and “The Pharmacist” have increasingly addressed addiction, particularly the opioid crisis, shedding light on its societal impact. Reality series like “Intervention” and dramas like “Recovery Road” aim to destigmatise addiction. Public Service Announcements and social media campaigns further advocate for awareness, resources and support, collectively contributing to a more informed and compassionate approach to addiction issues.

Final thoughts

The evolving portrayal of heroin and addiction in TV shows offers a fascinating reflection of changing societal values and attitudes. As we’ve explored, the history of heroin in the UK and the US played a significant role in shaping how this issue was depicted on television. Over the years, we’ve witnessed a notable transformation in how heroin addiction is portrayed, with a shift towards greater realism and empathy.

This transformation is not isolated to the entertainment industry but reflects broader societal changes.

Has heroin affected you or your loved ones?

If you’ve found this topic to be a sensitive one and are struggling with the thought of heroin, it could be time to reach out for help.

Whether this is for you or a loved one, no one should have to face this battle alone. Take the first step towards a brighter future by seeking help now. Your journey to recovery starts here.

Reach out to us and find the support and resources you need. Let us guide you on your path to recovery.