With the rapid rise of smokeless tobacco and other cigarette alternatives, the Rutgers School of Public Health’s Center for Tobacco Studies is contributing to the literature about how people perceive benefits and risks associated with such products.
[Photo: Dr. Olivia Wackowski]
Smokeless tobacco (SLT) contains nicotine, is addictive, and some forms have been linked to oral and pancreatic cancers; however, SLT still poses lower risks than smoking when used exclusively. Lead author, Dr. Olivia Wackowski, points out that this constitutes a dilemma debated in the tobacco control field: communicating traditional risk messages about SLT (i.e., that it is “not a safe alternative to smoking” could incorrectly imply to smokers that SLT products are as or more dangerous than cigarettes and discourage them from switching, while marketing them as reduced-risk products could potentially deter smokers from quitting completely and entice new users who otherwise would not use tobacco products.
Current research on whether reduced-risk information about SLT is effective in changing smokers’ perceptions is both limited and mixed. To learn more, the Rutgers School of Public Health researchers conducted an experiment randomly assigning more than 1,000 current smokers to read a news story that either framed SLT products 1) favorably (as having reduced risks relative to smoking); 2) cautiously (not referencing any reduced risks); using mixed frames (describing risks and reduced-risk potential) or to a control group which did not read any news story.
Results showed that exposure to reduced-risk messages about SLT relative to cigarettes may reduce smokers’ SLT harm perceptions and increase their use intentions. Results related to the balanced messaging were encouraging. “Participants perceived articles that presented both positive effects and risks as compared to cigarettes to be as credible and as easy to understand as articles that only described risks,” according to Dr. Wackowski. “These finding suggest that the presence and consumption of balanced information about SLT could improve how people see SLT products and may help move current smokers away from traditional cigarettes.”
There is more work to do — future research should explore how this messaging could influence perception of other products (like e-cigarettes) and other populations (like non-smokers) — but these findings suggest that tobacco control professionals and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials should consider the influence news media have when communicating about tobacco product risks.
“The Impact of Smokeless Tobacco Risk Information on Smokers’ Risk Perceptions and Use Intentions: A News Media Experiment” was recently published in a special issue of Health Communication. Articles had to be reviewed by the FDA for regulatory relevance to be considered for inclusion.