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Kaiser/Harvard Health News Index, April 1997 – Toplines/Survey

Health News Stories Followed By The Public

Contacts: Matt James (415) 854-9400 Chris Ferris (202) 347-5270

April 1997

The Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard Health News Index is designed to help the news media and people in the health care field gain a better understanding of which health stories in the news Americans are following and what they understand about those issues. Every two months, Kaiser/Harvard issues a new index report. This fifth report is based on a survey of 1,015 American adults. The survey asked respondents about major health issues covered in the news between February 24 and March 30, 1997. For comparison purposes, respondents were also asked about other leading issues in the news during the same period.

The health-related story followed most closely by Americans during March was President Clinton’s efforts to make it more difficult for minors to buy cigarettes. More than two-thrids (68%) of respondents said they followed this story very or fairly closely. A related story, the admissions by the Liggett Tobacco Company about cigarettes and nicotine, was followed by 63% of those surveyed. The suicide of 39 members of a religious cult in San Diego, California, was the only news story followed more closely during the same time period (71% followed it closely).

A similar proportion (62%) said they followed the debate over whether women in their forties should get annual mammograms. About half (52%) followed the debate over late-term or “partial birth” abortions very or fairly closely.

About a quarter (26%) of Americans reported following the announcement by the Food and Drug Administration that birth control pills are safe and effective for use after sexual intercourse to prevent pregnancy.


What the Public Understands about Health Stories in the News

Liggett Tobacco Company:

In March, the Liggett Tobacco Company publicly ackowledged that it has known that cigarettes can cause cancer. Two-thirds of Americans followed this story and 56% knew that Liggett had publicly ackowledged the link between cigarettes and cancer. One in four (24%) incorrectly thought that Liggett had claimed that there wasn’t enough evidence to say smoking definitely causes cancer.


Late-term Abortions:

Last year a spokesperson for the National Coalition of Abortion Providers publicly claimed that the number of late-term (or “partial-birth”) abortions performed in the United States was less than one thousand per year. Last month, however, the same spokesperson publicly admitted that he had understated the number of women who have this type of abortion. Two in five (41%) Americans knew that he had previously given too low a number. One in five (21%) incorrectly thought that fewer women have this type of abortion than the spokesperson had previously stated.


Also during this time period, the House of Representatives passed a ban on late-term abortions. About one-fourth (27%) of Americans knew that this bill had passed. One-third (32%) incorrectly thought the ban didn’t pass, and two in five (40%) didn’t know the status of the legislation.


Birth Control Pills Use as “Morning After” Pills:

The FDA announced last month that large doses of birth control pills are safe and effective for use as “morning after” pills to prevent pregnancy. About two in five (42%) Americans knew that birth control pills were available for that use in the United States. Twenty-nine percent incorrectly thought they had not been available, and the same proportion (29%) said they didn’t know.


The Kaiser/Harvard Health News Index is based on a national random sample survey of 1,015 Americans conducted April 4- 8, 1997, to measure Americans’ interest in and knowledge of health stories covered by the news media during the previous month. The survey was designed and analyzed jointly by the staff of the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University in consultation with the Pew Center for The People and The Press. The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates. The margin of error is