A study published this month in Nicotine and Tobacco Research provides evidence that coverage of smokeless tobacco (ST) in the context of tobacco harm reduction was infrequent and negatively slanted during the period 2006 through 2010. The lead author was Dr. Olivia Wackowski from the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey, with coauthors from her institution and from the University of California-San Francisco.

The authors searched for articles primarily about ST in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and USA Today, and in the top two to four newspapers in each state.  She also searched national news services (Associated Press, Reuters, UPI), the Winston-Salem Journal (home of R.J. Reynolds), the Richmond Times-Dispatch (home of Altria) and health wire news services.

Wachowski found 677 news articles, the largest group of which (n=191, 28%) were business-focused.  Other categories included prevention/cessation (11%), taxes (10%), use trends (9.0%), bans (8.1%), tobacco industry promotions (4.9%) and health risks (4.9%).

Only 130 ST articles focused on tobacco harm reduction (lumped with new products and product regulation), a low number considering the subject’s potential to save millions of lives.  Of these, only “…about 58%… referred to ST products as being [or] possibly being less risky or harmful than smoking.”  This category also had the highest percentage of articles (69%) with references to health risks, but it is likely that few of them were positive.  Tobacco hometown newspapers contributed the most articles to this category (38%), followed by state papers (35%) and national papers (23%).

The researchers also found 176 “opinion” articles; 89 were letters to the editor, 70 were editorials and 17 were op-ed pieces.  Unfortunately, 64% were classified by the researchers as anti-ST, only 26% were pro-ST, and the remainder were neutral.  Of the 61 articles in the harm reduction category, 43% were pro-ST.

One positive note: The use of the derogatory term “spit tobacco” was uncommon, except in state newspapers (15%).

In short, coverage of ST has been scant and heavily biased against and tobacco harm reduction.  This is unsurprising, given the national misinformation campaign that I discussed previously here.

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