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Soft On Smoking?

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Weekly Reader, one of the country's most popular news magazines for children, may be presenting a cloudy message about cigarette smoking. That, at least, is the conclusion of health researchers at the University of California at San Francisco, who evaluated tobacco-related articles published between 1989 and 1994 in 34 issues of Weekly Reader and 28 editions of Scholastic News, a competing weekly for young people.

The researchers found that Weekly Reader was "significantly more likely'' to represent the tobacco industry's perspectives in its articles on smoking and tobacco use: 68 percent of Weekly Reader's stories included the industry's views, compared with 32 percent of the articles in Scholastic News. Thirty-eight percent of Weekly Reader's articles contained a clear no-smoking message, while 79 percent of the stories in Scholastic News contained admonitions against tobacco use.

June Million, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said the study is cause for concern and that educators should carefully scrutinize publications that are used in the classroom. "It's a wake-up call to pay attention to everything you read,'' Million said.

Weekly Reader, which publishes editions for prekindergarten through 6th grade and has a circulation of more than 8 million, was purchased in 1991 by K-III Holdings, a subsidiary of Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts, & Co. Until a year ago, KKR was a major shareholder of RJR Nabisco, whose divisions include the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the nation's second-largest cigarette maker. Scholastic News is published by Scholastic Inc. and reaches about 3.5 million elementary school students and their teachers.

Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at UCSF and a co-author of the study, said that before K-III bought the magazine, 62 percent of Weekly Reader articles on tobacco-related subjects had a no-smoking message, compared with 24 percent after the acquisition. "The results we turned up are troubling,'' Glantz said. "It sends a message that is more consistent with what the tobacco industry is interested in than a health professional would be.''

In a prepared statement, however, the magazine's publishers said, "Weekly Reader has probably been more influential than any other entity in discouraging children from smoking, and our articles over the years consistently reflect that position.''

According to Glantz, the study was prompted by a controversy over a cover story on smokers' rights that ran in the Oct. 14, 1994, issue of Weekly Reader's 5th grade edition. Titled "Do Cigarettes Have a Future?,'' it discussed the economic impact of efforts to curb smoking.

Million of the Alexandria, Va.-based elementary school principal's association said she intends to include an item on the study's findings in the newsletter the organization mails out to its 26,000 members.

--Jessica Portner

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