Study: Tobacco industry influenced public debate to block a ban on menthol
BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA — June 11, 2014 — Stoking fears of job loss and strategically positioning itself on the side of civil rights groups, the tobacco industry influenced news coverage of mentholated cigarettes — which disproportionately impact the health of African Americans — to prevent a ban on them, found a study published today in the American Journal of Public Health.
The study, conducted by researchers at the Public Health Institute's Berkeley Media Studies Group (BMSG) and the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law, analyzed public debate on menthol policy between 2008 and 2011, including news coverage, government documents and meeting transcripts of a key advisory committee to the FDA, which was charged with evaluating the public health effects of menthol.
The researchers found that arguments pointing to links between menthol and higher rates of diseases, as well as difficulty in quitting smoking (especially among African Americans who are the primary targets of menthol ads), were overshadowed by the tobacco industry's scare tactics. In particular, tobacco executives argued that regulating menthol would have economic consequences, such as job loss and the creation of a black market, and would diminish freedom of choice among African American smokers.
"This is just one more example of a decades-long pattern of the tobacco industry using its spending power and political clout to cast doubt on health findings and pretend to be a friend to the very groups it targets with its deadly products," BMSG's Andrew Cheyne, the study's lead author said.
Groups supporting the ban pointed out that the industry's "choice" argument is hypocritical: "Addiction is the absolute opposite of choice," said John Payton, then-president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who was quoted in news coverage reviewed during the study.
Still, such arguments did not prevail against the tobacco industry's fierce opposition, and the ban was ultimately defeated.
"The public health case for banning menthol cigarettes is strong, but the industry has a bigger megaphone," BMSG director and study co-author Lori Dorfman said. "News coverage directly influences how the public and policymakers view an issue. The lesson in this is that the groups most affected by a harmful product need a voice in the debate."
About Berkeley Media Studies Group
Berkeley Media Studies Group (BMSG) researches the way public health issues are characterized in the media and helps community groups, journalists and advocates use the media to advance healthy public policy. BMSG is a project of the Public Health Institute.
About Public Health Advocacy Institute
The Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI) is a legal research center focused on public health law at Northeastern University School of Law. PHAI's goal is to support and enhance a commitment to public health in individuals and institutes who shape public policy through law. PHAI is committed to research in public health law, public health policy development; to legal technical assistance; and to collaborative work at the intersection of law and public health. Their current areas of work include tobacco control and childhood obesity.