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When the tobacco industry controls the news: KKR, RJR Nabisco, and the Weekly Reader Corporation.
  1. W DeJong
  1. Department of Health and Social Behavior, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA. bdejong@edc.org

    Abstract

    BACKGROUND: The Weekly Reader Corporation was acquired in 1991 by K-III Communications, whose majority shareholder is Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR), best known for its leveraged buyout of tobacco conglomerate RJR Nabisco. Among other student newspapers, Weekly Reader publishes Current Events for students in grades 6-10 (ages 11-16). OBJECTIVE: To explore how KKR's ownership might have affected the content of tobacco-related news stories in Current Events, which reaches students at the very ages when many begin to experiment with tobacco. METHODS: A content analysis was conducted of 182 issues of Current Events, 71 pre-acquisition and 111 post-acquisition. Tobacco-related news was reported in four articles in the pre-acquisition issues and in 12 articles in the post-acquisition issues. RESULTS: The content of tobacco-related news stories shifted after KKR's acquisition to portray tobacco as a "forbidden fruit" that is attractive to teenagers. This was done by focusing on new policies and programmes to discourage teenagers from smoking, the mythical threat of prohibition, and the supposed popularity of smoking, while giving relatively little attention to the health consequences of tobacco use. CONCLUSIONS: After engineering a stock swap with Bordens in 1995, KKR no longer directly owns RJR Nabisco stock. This case study underscores the need for public health advocates to be watchful of the tobacco industry's efforts to control public access to news about tobacco.

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