Press turns deaf ear to beneficial uses of tobacco

The New York Times termed the notion "scientific blasphemy." In an article on Jan. 14, 1997, writer Warren Leary described how researchers are increasingly paying attention to the potential benefits of nicotine, a substance long demonized in the press as the culprit behind tobacco addiction.

Leary explained that studies in the past few years, many sponsored by the federal government, show that nicotine may delay the onset and effects of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases and may improve symptoms of attention deficit disorder and Tourette's syndrome. Scientists, it seems, can't be concerned about political correctness and the public's anti-tobacco sentiment; they've been studying the effects of nicotine since the beginning of the century.

Certainly, the popular press has done its share to disparage cigarettes and tobacco, and rightly so. Cigarettes are the No. 1 preventable cause of cancer death in this country and smoking is a major cause of heart disease. But has the press followed what Columbia journalism professor James Carey terms a "progressive agenda," purposely steering clear of something that might upset the public's social conscience? Or is the media simply doing its job, focusing on tobacco's--and nicotine's--current place as public health enemy No. 1?

"The press has historically always been part of a progressive movement," Carey points out. "If issues are identified as part of a progressive agenda, the press generally supports them."

Dr. Herbert Kleber, professor of psychiatry and director of the substance abuse program at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and at Columbia, contends that the press has no hidden agenda. It reports what it finds newsworthy and compelling. Anyway, he says, "the press ignores most research, particularly if it's not sexy."

Perhaps. Smoking and cancer are sexy topics. A recent Nature Medicine article listed under the heading "Plant Medicine" seemingly was a harder sell. The article touted the potential preventive effects of a genetically engineered transgenic tobacco plant, which expresses a particular protein. Scientists demonstrated that susceptible mice fed the protein did not develop diabetes. One of the scientists wrote, in an online abstract, that a similar approach may help humans: ". . . if so, the importance of eating more (transgenic) fruits and vegetables could take on a whole new significance as indeed would the tobacco plant!" The notion of merely eating a plant to prevent diabetes, albeit tobacco, while intriguing, failed to grab huge headlines.

Yet, in contrast, reporters have in the past been intrigued by the notion that tobacco and nicotine may actually have some good points. Neurobiologist Dr. Lorna Role knows this all too well. Role, professor of cell biology and anatomy in the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia, garnered at least 15 minutes of fame in September 1995, when she and colleague Dr. Daniel McGehee, now an assistant professor in the Department of Anesthesia and Critical Care at the University of Chicago, announced in the journal Science that they had discovered one way that nicotine influences mood, mental alertness, and addiction. Press coverage, Role and McGehee recall, was relentless. "They [reporters] kept asking for the perfect sound bite, a six-word explanation of what we found," Role recalls. The scientists discovered that nicotine acts on nerve cells to enhance the release of neurotransmitters, chemicals that relay messages within the brain. "They [reporters] wanted to know if tobacco was good or bad for you," Role says. "I said, 'Look, it's not good or bad. It's science.'

"The [Science] paper was in every newspaper around the world--it was unbelievable," Role says. The researchers used buzzwords such as "turning up the volume" to describe the way that nicotine increases a person's ability to focus and pay attention. They also described the affected limbic system as the part of the brain that says, "'That was good, do it again,'" McGehee quips. While much of the press coverage, including outlets such as the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Associated Press, was accurate, Role thinks newspapers may have had an agenda after all. She argues that some ignored the chemical's potential medical uses in their stories. "It was as if they didn't want to go up against tobacco companies. It's unfortunate that anything associated with tobacco gets treated that way." Moreover, Role believes there is resistance among scientists to doing research on such a disfavored substance. Efforts to stop smoking have discouraged research into nicotine's potential benefits.

McGehee was both amazed and forgiving of what he saw as a harried media in search of the headline or sound bite. While he is surprised that the press hasn't covered the positive aspects of nicotine more frequently, he didn't detect any resistance to talking about the topic. He gives the print media a solid B. "The issue of 'positive' effects of nicotine seemed appealing and interesting to reporters I interacted with," he remembers. In his view, there is still enough of a medical controversy surrounding nicotine's effects that the issue is far from resolved. Going from cells in a petri dish to humans is a big jump. "Given that tobacco smoking is the No. 1 public health problem in industrialized countries worldwide, I think that many researchers, including myself, are reluctant to make statements that could be interpreted as pro-smoking."

Yet nicotine need not forever play the villain, both Role and McGehee say. Pharmaceutical companies could reap fortunes, they argue, by developing a safe drug delivery system. "A company that develops a nicotine delivery system as effective as cigarettes--without the detrimental effects--would do very well. Few known drugs enhance cognitive performance," Role says. "I think that society could accept nicotine eventually." -- Steven Benowitz

STEVEN BENOWITZ, former senior editor at The Scientist, is a regular contributor to 21stC. His work has appeared in Science News, The World Book Health and Medical Annual, the University of Chicago Magazine, and other publications. He is at work on a children's book on cancer.