Public Release: 

Media undermine efforts to tackle nicotine addiction

Editorial: The power of the press in smokers' attempts to quit, BMJ Volume 324, pp 1346-7

BMJ

Inaccurate media reports surrounding the safety of new smoking cessation drugs are undermining the treatment of nicotine addiction, according to an editorial in this week's BMJ.

Professor Linda Ferry presents two scenarios that illustrate the struggle between the press and medical experts to investigate and report concerns about the safety of new drugs for smoking cessation, and the effect this struggle has on reported attempts to quit smoking.

In the United Kingdom, bupropion hydrochloride (Zyban) was heralded by the media as a wonder drug when it was released in 2000. Not surprisingly, smokers queued up in waiting rooms, expecting their tobacco addiction to be vanish with this new pill.

The public enthusiasm changed abruptly in February 2001 when a London newspaper profiled a few dramatic reports of deaths in smokers using bupropion. Although experts remain convinced of the safety of bupropion, the demand for treatment has declined.

A similar shift in public opinion followed media reports in the United States about an increased risk of heart attack associated with nicotine patches. A subsequent trial showed that patches were safe to use, specifically in patients with heart disease, but many smokers still believe the original media messages that "if I use a patch and smoke even one cigarette, I might have a heart attack."

Clinicians should give clear messages to their patients that it is much safer to use either of these drugs to help their attempts to quit than to continue smoking, says the author. Unfortunately, much damage has been done.

Tobacco treatment specialists and public health agencies need to refute the inaccuracies of the media and present a clear picture of the enormous problem of preventable disability and the 120,000 tobacco related deaths a year from the 13 million smokers in the United Kingdom, she concludes.

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