Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Minnesota Researchers to Smokeless Users: You’re Better Off Smoking!

In mid August the American Chemical Society, “the world’s largest scientific society,” held its national meeting in Washington, DC. The ACS has an impressive media machine, and on August 16 it was mobilized to promote a presentation entitled “Analysis of 21 polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in smokeless tobacco by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry,” by Irina Stepanov, a research associate at the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center. The ACS media blitz included a press conference with Stepanov, which you can watch here.

Stepanov made some utterly incredible claims during her presentation, which were reported in an article published on the website of U.S. News & World Report under the headline “Chewing Tobacco No Safer Than Smoking”:

(1) “Tobacco users who think it's safer to dip snuff or chew tobacco than smoke are dead wrong, researchers say.”

(2) “A study has found that taking one pinch of smokeless tobacco delivers the same amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) as smoking five cigarettes.”

Let’s be perfectly clear: Irina Stepanov was asserting not only that smokeless tobacco is not safer than smoking, but that it is five times more dangerous than smoking!

Readers of this blog are familiar with the epidemiologic evidence linking smokeless tobacco use and cancer: almost a big fat zero. Numerous research studies have established that the cancer risks from using smokeless tobacco are so low that they are barely measurable.

Irina Stepanov made her claims about smokeless tobacco at a very public national meeting, and the American Chemical Society was an enthusiastic partner in promoting her research to the media. Surprisingly, after launching this unsubstantiated attack on smokeless tobacco, both Stepanov and the Chemical Society have refused to share her presentation with this researcher.

On August 19, I emailed Stepanov requesting a copy of her presentation. Her response on August 22 was bizarre: “We are in process of publishing a full paper on this study. So, the abstract is the only material that is available for sharing.”

That excuse for withholding her data is unprofessional. Researchers routinely provide copies of their public conference presentations to others in academia, regardless of the pendency of publication of fuller texts.

Refusal to share a conference presentation may violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the National Institutes of Health grants policy on data sharing. NIH funds Stepanov’s research group, the University of Minnesota and the Masonic Cancer Center, which also promoted Stepanov’s Chemical Society presentation. The NIH position is crystal clear: “It is NIH policy that the results and accomplishments of the activities that it funds should be made available to the public. PIs and grantee organizations are expected to make the results and accomplishments of their activities available to the research community and to the public at large.”

This episode is simply the latest in a series of attacks on smokeless tobacco by Minnesota anti-tobacco extremists. Almost the same approach and rhetoric were used in these 2007 articles in the New York Times and Fox News.

The main objective of this blog is to “examine and comment on the scientific foundation for tobacco policies and fallacies.” But that examination and commentary is contingent upon the scientific information being made available. In this case, Irina Stepanov, assisted by the American Chemical Society, has made a mockery of the long-standing tradition of open communication of scientific information.


Dr. J. H. Lauterbach said...

My presentation at the ACS meeting (Division of Chemical Toxicology) immediately preceeded Dr. Stepanov's. I stayed for her presentation. There was little correlation between what Dr. Stepanov said and what was contained in the press releases. Basically she measured the levels of the PAHs in smokeless tobacco products. The potential error in her conclusions was that she assumed 100-percent transfer of the PAHs to the user. Since there are apparently no data to the contrary, is the default assumption of 100-percent transfer that bad?

Chris Snowdon said...

5 times more dangerous than cigarettes? That's nothing! Shisha is "450 times more dangerous than having a cigarette."