The Military Health System and the Defense Health Agency last November published a grossly misleading article on their website titled, “Quit the spit: Smokeless tobacco no better than lit” (archived article here). After I educated Air Force officials, the article was removed. Here is the story.
The piece wrongly asserted that smokeless tobacco (ST) use is equally harmful as smoking:
“…putting in a dip or a chew can cause as much harm as lighting up cigarettes... ‘A lot of the effects smoking has on the body – causing blood vessels to narrow raising blood pressure and causing several cancers – are the same for smokeless tobacco,’ said Air Force Col. Thomas Moore, a preventive medicine doctor and in charge of health promotions for the Air Force Medical Support Agency... ‘You’re really not gaining anything by giving up cigarettes just to put in a load of chew,’ said Moore.” (emphasis added)
In a November 18 email I advised Colonel Moore of the article’s numerous errors:
“These passages send the clear, unmistakable and completely false message to military personnel that smokeless tobacco use is just as dangerous as smoking. Numerous scientific studies published over the past twenty years provide indisputable evidence that smokeless tobacco use is vastly safer than smoking. For example, a 2002 report by the British Royal College of Physicians (here), one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious medical societies, stated ‘As a way of using nicotine, the consumption of non-combustible [smokeless] tobacco is on the order of 10-1,000 times less hazardous than smoking, depending on the product.’
“Your just-as-dangerous message may be considered a breach of medical ethics. A 2004 study (here) authored by a panel of international tobacco research and policy experts concluded: ‘…[smokeless] products pose a substantially lower risk to the user than do conventional cigarettes. This finding raises ethical questions concerning whether it is inappropriate and misleading for government officials or public health experts to characterize smokeless tobacco products as comparably dangerous with cigarette smoking.’
“Members of our armed forces put their lives on the line every day. The Military Health System and the Defense Health Agency should show them respect by giving them truthful information about tobacco use. There is a lot at stake. In another 2007 report (here) the Royal College concluded ‘...that smokers smoke predominantly for nicotine, that nicotine itself is not especially hazardous, and that if nicotine could be provided in a form that is acceptable and effective as a cigarette substitute, millions of lives could be saved.’
“I urge you to promptly retract the article or issue a substantial revision to reflect the indisputable evidence that smokeless tobacco use is vastly safer than smoking. Please let me know if I can provide any additional information to facilitate this action. I appreciate your prompt response to my request.”
In the absence of a response, I sent a similar email to U.S. Air Force Surgeon General Mark Ediger. This generated a reply from Major General Roosevelt Allen, Jr., Director of Medical Operations & Research in the Office of the Surgeon General. He wrote that I was “correct in stating that current scientific evidence clearly delineates different levels of health risk associated with the various forms of tobacco use,” and he promised “to see if it is possible to post a clarification of the article on the Health.mil site.”
At General Allen’s request, I supplied a portfolio of published medical articles on ST and tobacco harm reduction.
Sometime in February, the offending article was removed from the military website. It is evident that senior Air Force health officials recognized that the Defense Health Agency’s article was indefensible, given the vast difference in risks involved in smoking and ST use. I am hopeful that this awareness will translate into a rational tobacco policy at the Department of Defense and beyond.