Story ignored tobacco researcher's earlier studies

By Thomas A. Briant
Copyright 1998 Star-Tribune (Minneapolis/St. Paul)
September 19, 1998

The justice system allows both sides to present their case to ensure that the jury hears all the pertinent facts. Unfortunately, there is no similar requirement in news stories about tobacco research.

In "Study: Towns Can Curb Teen Smoking" (news, Aug. 22) significant data from the study about how minors obtain cigarettes was left out. This study was conducted from 1993 to 1996 by Jean Forster, a University of Minnesota associate professor, and was paid for by a $1.7 million federal grant from the National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute.

The study was published this past August in the American Journal of Public Health. It involved a survey of 6,014 eighth-, ninth-and 10th-graders in 14 Minnesota cities. Restrictive retail tobacco ordinances were in effect in seven of the cities.

Besides the American Journal of Public Health article, Forster has previously published several other articles based on the same study data. The data included in these other articles, but strangely absent from the newspaper story, indicates that a substantial majority of underage youth who have ever smoked or are current weekly smokers obtain their cigarettes from "social sources" including family members and friends, not retail stores.

The public deserves to be exposed to all of the research data, not just that which meets a predetermined political agenda. This is important information for policy makers and the general public to have in creating a meaningful and workable response to the issue of tobacco use by minors.

A major source of additional study data, but left out of the Star Tribune story, was contained in an article by Forster and published last year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. This additional data shows that for the 1,927 eighth-, ninth-and 10th-graders who have ever smoked, 91.3 percent obtained their first cigarette from social sources. Of this same group, 53.7 percent have never bought a cigarette.

Virtually three-fourths, 73.7 percent, of these same minors obtained their most recent cigarette from a parent, sibling or friend. In contrast, out of this same group, 2.6 percent purchased their first cigarette, while just 18.4 percent bought and only 2.3 percent stole their most recent cigarette.

Was it necessary to spend $1.7 million taxpayer dollars to learn that most minors don't purchase cigarettes? Are more stringent ordinances necessary when this study shows that enforcement of strict ordinances does not actually decrease youth smoking and has no impact on social sources of cigarettes? Do minors change their habits when faced with a strict sales environment and shift to relying more on social sources for cigarettes? How does society reduce the prevalent "social sources" that most minors rely on for cigarettes?

One conclusion seems to be clear; retailers may not be the major source that underage smokers rely on for their cigarettes. Perhaps the attention being given to the issue of tobacco use by minors needs to focus less on regulating retailers and more on the responsibility of parents, siblings and friends to cease being a source of cigarettes and to discourage minors from smoking.

Now, I am sure that Forster and the anti-tobacco advocates will urge that my comments be disregarded because I represent wholesalers and retailers who lawfully sell tobacco products. However, their anticipated dismissal of these points cannot disregard the fact that the studies quoted were done by Forster, not by me or my clients.

I'm not questioning her research, I only hope that the Star Tribune in the future will use all her findings and not just those statistics that help fulfill Forster's political goals.

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