NYT: Misleading the public again

Many hold the New York Times up as a worthy model for good news reporting and whether this is true I am not sure but what I do know is that when it comes to tobacco and health, this paper has an anti-tobacco stance that no concerns for health can possibly dislodge.

Today, and ironically placed in the Science section, the question When adolescent boys (and others) substitute smokeless tobacco, the kind held inside the lip or cheek, for cigarettes, what are the health effects? is posed and in a fashion answered. (Full article here.)

The author, C. Claiborne Ray, fails to mention the one most salient part of the answer, if indeed he actually processed the question, which is that the health risks drop dramatically to roughly 1% of the level associated with smoking. The cavalcade of information that masquerades as a helpful response serves chiefly to preserve the popular misleading message that using smokeless tobacco is as dangerous as smoking, and thus, any smoker who thought of switching should think again.

My colleague Carl Phillips wrote to the author and pointed out that he had, through his naive and unthinking repetition of misleading information, killed people today. That might sound hyperbolic but it is anything but. This sober message from a trusted source will be taken as gospel by many readers, many of them smokers, and result in them maintaining the risky lifestyle that they had considered abandoning.

Dr. Gilbert Ross at American Council on Science and Health in a letter to the NYT wrote:

Mr. Ray’s answer to the question about the relative risks of smokeless tobacco when substituted for cigarettes was dangerously misleading where it was not simply wrong. The overwhelming majority of the toxicity of tobacco comes from inhaling the products of combustion: smoke. The two salient facts he ignored are these: modern smokeless tobacco products are 99% less toxic in all health outcomes as compared to smoking, and over 400,000 among the cigarette- and nicotine-addicted 45 million smokers in our country die of their addiction each year. Smokeless tobacco has shown evidence of effectively helping addicted smokers quit their deadly habit, whereas other methods work much less often. Mr. Ray ignored the many studies showing these statements to be true while managing to find two which support his predetermined position, thus rendering his readers a potentially lethal dose of misinformation.

Somehow I do not think that this manipulation of readers quite falls under the category of what was intended by “all the news that’s fit to print”.

-PLB

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