With racial health gaps persisting in the U.S., a new study shows that media content may contribute to the problem.

The study, published in BMC Public Health, tracked health-related ads in 12 magazines for three summer months. The magazines were a mix of mainstream publications (Woman's Day, Good Housekeeping, Ladies' Home Journal, and Family Circle) and those geared toward minority audiences (Ebony, Essence, Heart and Soul, Upscale, Latina, Latina Style, Cristina, and Vanidades).

"There were dramatic differences" in the health-related ads in mainstream and minority magazines, says Georgia Robins Sadler, PhD, MBA, BSN.

Sadler is a clinical professor of surgery at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and the community outreach director of the Rebecca and John Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She spoke with WebMD about the study and the media's influence.

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Surprising Results

Among the findings:

--Approximately half of all ads in mainstream magazines were health related, more than double the proportion in the black and Hispanic magazines.

--Black and Hispanic magazines contained fewer advertisements with potentially healthy impacts and more with potentially unhealthy impacts than mainstream magazines.

--More than 3 out of 4 prescription drug ads were in the 4 mainstream magazines.

--Ads for cigarettes, alcohol, and unhealthy foods accounted for 17 percent of ads in mainstream magazines, 30 percent of those in black publications, and 39 percent of those in Hispanic magazines.

--More than half of ads for unhealthy products in black magazines featured black models.

--In mainstream magazines, only 6 percent of ads for unhealthy products showed any people.

--Only black magazines contained ads for birth control, HIV treatments, and erectile dysfunction drugs.

--Ads for blood pressure drugs only appeared in mainstream magazines. More than 40 percent of U.S. blacks have high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association.

"I think the findings were quite surprising for us," Sadler tells WebMD. "I think the lack of pharmaceutical advertisements in the minority-focused magazines is worrisome."

Such ads contain information about health problems and "raise the scientific literacy, the basic knowledge for folks," she says.

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Broader Meaning

Sadler says she and her colleagues want to study editorial content, not just ads. Earlier, they had found that as many women at black beauty salons got health information from the media as from their doctors.

"I thought, 'That's interesting,'" says Sadler. "The media will reach more people in one day than all of us health educators."

Lots of factors affect health care gaps, and Sadler's team isn't blaming the media. "We're not saying this is the major factor. It's just one more thing that contributes," she says.

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Community Media Counts

Glossy national magazines aren't the only media that matter, says Sadler. She notes the importance of local ethnic publications.

"If every ethnic community's media folks jumped on the bandwagon of bringing health messages to their community, so much good could be accomplished very, very quickly," says Sadler.

She says the goal is to create enough buzz in communities to get people talking about and acting on health messages, such as getting colorectal cancer screening after age 50 or mammograms after age 40.

"You reach this tipping point where of course you get a mammogram. Of course we talk about people who have this disease. There's nothing wrong with it," says Sadler.

"No matter how much a physician talks about a health issue, their reach is just their patient population. The journalist's reach is the entire world," says Sadler.

"If we really worked together collaboratively, we really could change the course of so many diseases in very short order. It could make a night and day difference, a life and death difference, for so many people. ... We can really tip the scale."

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SOURCES: WebMD Medical News: "Health Care Disparities Persist for Blacks." Duerksen, S. BMC Public Health, Aug. 18, 2005; vol 5. Georgia Robins Sadler, PhD, MBA, clinical professor of surgery, University of California, San Diego; director of community outreach, Rebecca and John Moores UCSD Cancer Center. News release, BioMed Central.