AP sticks too close to tobacco industry line in story on FDA tobacco regulation


Editor’s Note:  Mr Raeburn’s criticism  is somewhat misplaced because a significant number of the  submissions to the FDA  for new products are not available to the public until which time the FDA has reviewed them and initiated a proceeding.   In addition  Felberbaum’s  statement was that historically, prior to the new Act, that the tobacco industry introduced considerably more products than after the Act.  If you compare any positive number with zero, the resultant analysis follows.

Knight Journalism Tracker MIT

A story by Michael Felberbaum at The Associated Press on delays in FDA approval of new tobacco products sticks far closer than it should to the industry position on the delays.

The AP’s headline gives away the game: “FDA review of tobacco products grinds to a halt.” Nothing that “grinds to a halt” is good. Before we have even begun to read the story, we know that Felberbaum thinks the FDA’s delays are a bad thing–precisely the view of the tobacco industry, as the story makes clear. He even jokes about it. His lede: “Talk about a smoke break.”

“Tobacco companies have introduced almost no new cigarettes or smokeless tobacco products in the U.S. in more than 18 months because the federal government has prevented them from doing so,” Felberbaum writes without attribution. But has the FDA in fact blocked the introduction of new products? Or has the industry failed to meet the FDA’s requirements for approval of new products?

I don’t know, but Felberbaum takes the industry’s position on the question without any evidence to support it. He presents this as simple fact, even though he later quotes FDA officials saying the applications for new products had “significant deficiencies.”

Later in the story, he takes the industry position again, this time on the introduction of new products. He writes that the industry needs them “to steal smokers from competitors.” That’s what the industry wants us to think–that it isn’t getting kids or nonsmokers to start smoking, it’s merely trying to get current smokers to switch brands.

It doesn’t take too much thought to realize that brand-switching cannot lead to growth in the industry; only the recruitment of new smokers can do that, especially because a substantial number of current smokers are dying. Felberbaum should not have reported this industry position as if it were fact.

Felberbaum does quote an antismoking activist and the director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, who differ with the industry. But that comes later, after readers have already been persuaded that this is yet another case of government regulations interfering with a legitimate business.

The FDA has frequently been criticized for such things as taking too long to approve new drugs, and failing to be aggressive enough in enforcing food safety. The same thing could be happening here; it’s possible the industry is correct. But Felberbaum has accepted that view without doing the reporting he would need to make the case.

-Paul Raeburn


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