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After a long period of decline, cigar consumption in the USA began to increase in 1994.1 Between 1993 and 1997, consumption of large cigars rose 68%.2 In 1994, there were over 125 000 new cigar smokers in the USA, and there appears to be a trend toward younger consumers (ages 18–24 years).1 3
The US cigar trend was propelled by print media coverage largely favourable toward cigar use, framing cigars as a trend and failing to cover health effects.4 In the USA, daily newspapers provided considerable coverage. Although media advocacy is an increasingly important part of tobacco control efforts,5and studies have analysed tobacco coverage,6-9 we could locate no studies of journalists' perspectives on tobacco. We asked how journalists came to write articles about cigars and what sources they used.
Between February 1999 and January 2000 we attempted to contact 79 journalists who wrote at least one cigar focused newspaper article appearing from 1995 to 1997 in one of five national newspapers (Los Angeles Times, New York Times, USA Today,Washington Post, andWall Street Journal) or eight California newspapers (Daily News of Los Angeles,Fresno Bee, Investors' Business Daily, Orange County Register, Press Enterprise,Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Chronicle, and San Diego Union-Tribune). Of these, 44 were no longer working at the newspapers and left no forwarding information, or did not return persistent calls, one had died, and 14 declined participation. We conducted semi-structured telephone interviews with 21 journalists who wrote cigar focused articles.
The mean number of articles written was 2.43 (range 1–6). Most journalists got their story idea from personal experience (14 mentions) or seeing a similar story elsewhere (10 mentions). The most often cited source of story information was the cigar industry (26 mentions), followed by cigar smokers (9 mentions). The cigar industry was mentioned as a source more than five times as often as health related sources (table 1).
Fifty seven per cent (12/79) of the journalists had receivedunsolicited information from cigar related groups/individuals, including Cigar Aficionado magazine (5 mentions) and the Cigar Association of America (4 mentions). This included press releases (9 mentions) and cigar events invitations (2 mentions). Thirty-eight per cent (8/21) of journalists had sought information from the Cigar Association.
Seventy-six per cent (16/21) of the journalists had ever smoked cigars; however, at the time of interview, only 31% (5/21) were current cigar smokers, and all smoked one cigar or less per week. Sixty two per cent (13/21) had used other tobacco products. Over 84% (16/19) rated smoking one cigar a day as “a little risky” or “very risky” to health. “I think . . . there was this unspoken understanding that ‘this is the “safe” tobacco’, and the Cancer Society [US National Cancer Institute monograph]10 did a pretty good job of dispelling that,” commented one journalist.
Most said they thought the cigar trend was waning. One journalist said, “Coverage of the cigar trend has been uncritical . . . That's how trends are . . .they go through a life cycle in the public consciousness which the media reflect.”
However, media not only reflect but shape social trends. This small study is not generalisable to all journalists, but it shows that, at least in this instance, the cigar industry may have been well ahead of the public health community in capturing journalists' attention. Health advocates should offer accurate, proactively prepared health information on any tobacco product, be readily available, and be prepared to counter positive industry spin explicitly and creatively. The currency of journalists is news. Making tobacco news requires media advocacy, foresight, and marketing expertise as part of public health skills.
This research was supported by the National Cancer Institute (grant CA76972). We also wish to thank the journalists who participated.