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Covering Tobacco: Q&A with the AP's Michael Felberbaum

Covering Tobacco: Q&A with the AP's Michael Felberbaum

Picture of Tammy Worth
Courtesy of Elvert Barnes Photography

Michael Felberbaum covered business for the Associated Press in Richmond, Va., as one of his biggest subject matters -- Circuit City -- went under. When the Richmond-based company declared bankruptcy in 2007, Felberbaum began looking more closely at the tobacco industry.

With Altria Group Inc., the owner of Phillip Morris USA, and other tobacco suppliers located nearby, the transition seemed natural. Here’s what he has learned over the past five years reporting on this controversial industry.

Q. You’re a business reporter, but how much of your beat delves into other topics?

A. Our focus is business reporting. We do have medical and health writers for the company that cover general health issues and medical studies and such. But with a topic area like tobacco, it spans so many different areas -- not only business, but health and society and culture.

Q. What are the biggest challenges of your beat?

A. There are so many different players with so many different opinions when it comes to tobacco and especially the health issues surrounding it. I get inundated with varying viewpoints on issues from cigarette taxes to issues related with regulation. It takes a lot of time to process all of those things and put them in context in a way that I can them present to readers.

Q. How have you learned to sort through the voices from all sides of such a contentious topic?

A. That is a difficulty we deal with very often. There are a lot that are passionate about tobacco issues particularly related to health -- like the freedom to choose or issues related to public smoking bans. When you cover a topic area long enough, you do get a general consensus from public health authorities on issues and know how they will respond.

Q. Do you tend to avoid talking to groups who are more on the fringe when you report?

A. There is definitely more passion behind their words. But as a journalist, I’m not in a position to turn down someone reaching out with any viewpoint or information that is important. I welcome as much feedback and reaction and discussion as possible. I just evaluate on a case-by-case basis. I have to walk that fine line of listening to what these groups and the industry say.

Q. What do you have to understand about health when covering the industry?

A. Especially now that FDA regulations are ongoing, the issues of health are more important than ever. The federal government is using scientific evidence to decide how to regulate an industry. And the FDA is looking at reducing death and disease caused by tobacco and using scientific-based methods to determine how to do that. Issues being raised in relation to tobacco deal with the health effects. At the same time, the industry is interested in preserving their business.

Q. What are some of the newest developments in the industry?

A. One of the biggest issues that continues to be discussed is harm reduction and the continuum of risk within the tobacco space and whether the FDA will evaluate certain products and deem them as being less hazardous than cigarettes.

They are looking at electronic cigarettes as an alternative. They are working to develop nicotine delivery systems that are noncombustible products and other types of tobacco products being studied for their comparative risk to cigarettes.

For example, I did a story recently on a researcher at the University of Louisville who was working on a campaign to help smokers in Owensboro, Ky., quit using cigarettes by switching to smokeless tobacco products. He said they are less hazardous than cigarettes. Those claims can’t be made. It will be up to the FDA to determine if that is the case and whether or not they (tobacco suppliers) can market their products that way.

It is also interesting that an issue like medical marijuana is moving to the AP. We are at the beginning stages of developing that beat. In the last year or so, we have seen and heard from a lot more groups that have started the discussion about decriminalization but I think there is still a long way to go. We are getting to the bottom of the issue of medical efficacy and how best to approach it from a public health standpoint, and I am looking forward to seeing where it is going.

Q. What tips do you have for someone that is not a health expert, but is trying to understand the health issues about a topic like tobacco?

A. I would say to someone who would be reporting on an issue that crosses into area of health, certainly do research and check out all the sources that are available and try to best identify the common ground, [and] to wade through the passion and the numbers and get to the heart of the issue.

I find a lot of government resources are helpful at giving perspective to certain stories, and it is a good place to start. I think no information is bad information and no source is a bad source. I just keep an open mind and understand that with issues, especially like tobacco, there are varying opinions and passions that I will cross along the way.

Image by Elvert Barnes Photography via Flickr.


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