Health Editors Should Challenge Cigarette Ads

By: Allan Wolper

Ethics Corner Column

Dr. Isadore Rosenfeld is the health editor of Parade magazine. He knows a misleading tobacco ad when he reads one. He knows the Omni cigarette marketeers are writing a medical fairy tale by claiming their smokes are soldiers in the war against cancer. He also knows he can’t keep Omni from buying four-color, full-page ads in Parade to push its point of view. Cigarettes may kill people, but they do it legally. Still, medical writers cringe when Omni, a member of the Vector Tobacco Inc. family in Durham, N.C., presents itself as a puffer’s health haven.

“I have no input into what kind of ads there are in the magazine,” Rosenfeld said one recent morning. “Nobody at Parade looks over my shoulder. I write my health advice based on my conscience. I write about the dangers of tobacco all the time.”

He promised to speak out against Omni anytime anyone asks. “I am going to pooh-pooh their claims on my television program on Fox,” he said.

There is plenty to pooh-pooh.

Omni’s initial ads in Parade, USA Weekend, People, Playboy, and newspapers all over the country might force advertising departments to hire fact checkers. Omni presented itself this way: “Introducing the first premium cigarette created to significantly reduce carcinogenic PAHs, nitrosamines, and catechols, which are the major causes of lung cancer in smokers.”

That boast is in large print above a picture of two lovesick, healthy twentysomethings that makes irrelevant a lowercase warning acknowledging Omni’s ad is all smoke and mirrors: “Reductions in carcinogens (PAHs, nitrosomines, catechols, and organics) have not been proven to result in a safer cigarette. This product produces tar, carbon monoxide, [and] other harmful by-products.”

That’s like running a banner headline across the top of Page One proclaiming a victory over lung cancer with a boxed statement below the fold taking it all back.

The American Medical Association (AMA) e-mailed a letter to the editor of every newspaper that carries the big-type Omni pledge of a longer, tumorless life. That is one tough job.

Omni, since it began its marketing campaign Nov. 1, said it has bought space in the New York Daily News, the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Miami Herald, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Boston Herald, The Indianapolis Star, The Detroit News, and the Los Angeles Daily News, to name a few.

“The ads are very powerful visually, they offer false hope, and they are misleading,” said Dr. Randolph D. Smoak Jr., immediate past president of the AMA. Smoak said the newspapers were providing Omni with a shield of respectability as important as the message itself. “People believe what they read in their newspaper,” he said with a sigh. “Writers at those newspapers have a responsibility to help the reader see through the Omni marketing campaign.”

These are hard times for newspapers, but they will get harder if the people who run them forget that their ad copy should be as straightforward as the news copy adjoining it.

Omni’s biggest push has occurred in Parade and USA Weekend, which have a combined circulation of more than 59 million copies. The campaign is targeting the young readers that Big Tobacco, in a multibillion-dollar settlement, agreed to keep its ads away from.

The AMA will suffer the consequences of the he said/she said fairness doctrine, even if it convinces every journalist on its list to take on Vector Tobacco. For every doctor who explodes in anger at the Omni ad, there will be an Omni representative defending it. And the reps don’t lie.

“Smoking is hazardous, and we do not encourage people to smoke,” said Carrie Bloom, a spokeswoman for Vector. “While there is no such thing as a safe cigarette, we believe a reduction in recognized carcinogens and toxins is a step in the right direction.”

The best hope the anti-Omni crusaders have is to get Rosenfeld of Parade, Dr. Tedd Mitchell of USA Weekend, and other health journalists to go after the cigarette company in their magazines.

The spectacle of a columnist attacking an ad in his own publication would get national media attention. Rosenfeld, for his part, seemed ready to perform an autopsy on the Omni claims.

“Even if Omni manages to cut down on some of the carcinogens, the cigarette, in my view, would not be significantly less dangerous,” said Rosenfeld, the Rossi distinguished professor of clinical medicine at the New York Hospital/Cornell Medical Center in New York. “Tobacco is just bad for you.”

Federal courts have ruled that the Food and Drug Administration cannot regulate cigarette ads unless an individual company begins making health claims. Which Omni has done. So the AMA and its allies have filed a suit to get the FDA to monitor the Omni propaganda in newspapers.

And maybe give it a truth-in-advertising test.

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