Wednesday, November 24, 2010
The Consequences of Tobacco Prohibition and Misinformation in the U.S. Air Force
A new study about tobacco use among Air Force recruits, before and one year after basic training, has been published in the American Journal of Public Health (abstract here). The authors include two vocal tobacco opponents, Dr. Robert C. Klesges of the University of Tennessee (Memphis) and Dr. Jon O. Ebbert of the Mayo Clinic.
Dr. Klesges looked at tobacco use among airmen (an Air Force term used for both men and women) who made up a control group in a large study combining universal forced tobacco abstinence during 6 weeks of basic training and an “intervention” consisting of tobacco prevention or cessation. The results from the large study were published in 2006 (I refer to it as Klesges I, the abstract is here; I refer to the current study as Klesges II).
Klesges classified recruits based on their tobacco habits prior to basic training (baseline): nonusers of tobacco, smokers, smokeless users and dual users. In addition, he described tobacco prohibition:
“During basic military training, there is a total tobacco ban…and the prohibition is strictly enforced. At the beginning of basic military training, airmen are searched and all tobacco products are confiscated. Tobacco products are considered ‘‘contraband’’ along with alcohol, drugs, weapons, and chewing gum. The airmen recruits are required to maintain a ‘money list’ (i.e., a list of all serial numbers for all their money), which is checked regularly by basic military training instructors. Airmen are under constant supervision, and there are no tobacco products accessible even during those rare occasions when airmen are not supervised. An honor code is established early in basic training so that if a recruit breaks the rules, fellow airmen are duty bound to report the infraction. Finally, the punishment for tobacco use during basic military training is severe. In virtually all cases, the airman is ‘recycled’ (forced to repeat some or all of basic training), a possible sanction that few airmen dare risk.”
That is serious tobacco prohibition, and perhaps Klesges et al. hoped that none of the 5,225 Air Force recruits would be using tobacco 12 months later. That didn’t happen.
Klesges reported that 11% of recruits who were nonusers at baseline were smoking 12 months afterwards. As he admitted in Klesges I, “the smoking prevention program had no impact on smoking initiation.” So airmen started smoking in large numbers despite boot-camp tobacco prohibition and prevention programs.
In Klesges II, the main focus was on the 6% of smokers at baseline who were dual users afterwards. He classified this transition as harm escalation, which is an appalling misrepresentation of reality. It is scientifically established that smokers who switch to dual use smoke fewer cigarettes and have lower health risks (described here).
Other data in Klesges II were informative. Fewer than 1% of baseline smokers were smokeless users at follow-up, but 15% of baseline smokeless users were dual users and 14% were smokers at follow-up. In addition, 42% of dual users at baseline were smokers at follow-up. Thus, the transition from smokeless to cigarettes was more common than from cigarettes to smokeless. How did this happen? This is strong evidence that tobacco users in the Air Force are not properly informed about the risks of smoking and smokeless use. Unfortunately, they are making very bad decisions based on misinformation.
A big concern with this study is that the numbers don’t add up, compared with Klesges I. That study started with 7,974 airmen, compared with only 5,225 airmen in this study. In Kleges I, there were 312 smokeless users at baseline, but in Klesges II, there were only 193 (38% fewer). In Klesges I dual use was not a tobacco category, so we have no idea how it classified those 249 airmen from Klesges II. In short, reconciliation of different numbers between Klesges I and II is impossible, which is an indicator of low quality and inconsistency.
Klesges concludes that “[harm] escalation is a possible unintended consequence of promoting smokeless tobacco as a harm reduction strategy for smokers.” He is wrong. Harm escalation is the unintended consequence of not telling smokers and smokeless users the truth about the health risks.