Thursday, August 8, 2019

Nick Buonoconti Spoke Truth to Power on Smokeless Tobacco

Nick Buonoconti, a 15-year All-Pro NFL linebacker who contributed to the Miami Dolphins’s 1972 perfect season and Super Bowl win, died on July 31 at age 78, following a battle with dementia.  Buonoconti’s tenacity, dedication and intelligence made him an NFL star, despite the fact that scouts had considered him undersized.

Buonoconti found success well beyond football.  The new HBO documentary “The Many Lives of Nick Buonoconti,” describes his influential roles as lawyer, advocate and negotiator for pro athletes; NFL commentator; and dedicated fundraiser for the Miami Project, where he generated nearly $500 million for spinal injury research following his son’s catastrophic injury in a 1985 college football game. 

Buonoconti was also an unlikely hero for smokeless tobacco users.  According to Sports Illustrated, in the 1970s he started working with US Tobacco, the maker of Copenhagen and Skoal dip products.  In 1983, he became executive vice president for legal and federal affairs and public relations; two years later he was named president and chief operating officer.

As I noted previously, the campaign against smokeless tobacco started in 1981, with an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.  In February 1985, Buonoconti squared off with Ed Bradley on the influential news show “60 Minutes”.  The following exchange from that appearance appears at 24:35 in the HBO Buonoconti documentary:    

Ed Bradley: “The people who are dipping smokeless may think they are avoiding the dangers of tobacco by not smoking.  But there is substantial evidence that they’re not.”

Buonoconti: “The science as we know it today tells us that smokeless tobacco has never been scientifically established to cause any harm to humans.  That includes oral cancer.  There is no one saying it does cause a problem.”

Bradley: “The Surgeon General says it does.  The American Health Foundation says it does.”

Steve Croft, another “60 Minutes” correspondent, defends Buonoconti in the HBO documentary: “My feeling is he handled it very well, better than most CEOs that we interview and ask tough questions.”  However, the interview inaccurately and permanently stained Buonoconti as a tobacco industry shill.  He assumed that he had made a terrible mistake, noting, “I have to live with it.”

It turns out that Buonoconti was perfectly on target in challenging the bogus claim that dip and chew products cause mouth cancer.  Like everyone else, he was deceived by three decades of distorted research, exaggerated findings and unscrupulous campaigning by supposedly credible medical organizations.  His remarks proved prescient when a large 2016 federal study found no elevated risk for mouth cancer among American men who dip or chew tobacco.

HBO has done a public service in chronicling the many achievements of this multi-talented football legend.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Panel Examines Youth Vaping ‘Epidemic,’ Overlooks Real Threats

Yesterday Inside Sources published my column on how Congress focused on the vaping “epidemic” while ignoring legitimate threats to American teens.  Read it here or at Inside Sources.

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform held two days of hearings last week on “JUUL’s Role in the Youth Nicotine Epidemic.” Make no mistake: the hearings were about congressional grandstanding, not a discussion of what really threatens American teens.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, the high school vaping rate is lower than that for marijuana and alcohol use. It’s about the same as binge drinking (four or five drinks within a couple hours).  And, as we know, these activities don’t typically occur in a vacuum. High school students frequently drive after marijuana use, ride with a driver who has been drinking, text or email while driving, have sexual intercourse, and consider suicide.

But despite these truly worrisome activities, tobacco prohibitionists like Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids have convinced Congress, school boards and parents that e-cigarettes have created “a public health emergency.”  Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and other government officials fueled this anxiety by referring to the rise in teen vaping as an “epidemic.”

The hysteria stems from the CDC’s National Youth Tobacco Survey, which federal officials refer to as the gold standard of information about teen vaping. But they tout these numbers without any context.  And that context is critical.

We frequently hear that 3 million high school students in 2018 were “current vapers.” But if you look closer at the data, 3 million teens had used an e-cigarette at least once in the past 30 days. And 600,000 of the high school vapers were 18 or older, so they could purchase tobacco products legally in most states. The rest were underage. Of the 2.5 million underage vapers, about 1.7 million had also smoked a cigarette, cigar and/or had used smokeless tobacco.

Of the 807,000 underage vapers with no history of other tobacco use, 70 percent had used e-cigarettes only one to five days during the month — the equivalent of trying one at a party. Only 95,000 students had used the products 20 to 30 days, suggesting that they might be addicted.  And this represents just 0.6 percent of the nation’s nearly 15 million high school students — a far cry from Gottlieb’s hysteria that we’re “hooking an entire generation of children on tobacco and nicotine.”

These estimates are based on the CDC’s youth tobacco survey, so they’re certainly not “underestimates.”  Yet the rabidly anti-tobacco Truth Initiative produced an estimate for 2018 that is nearly half that of the 3 million number touted by the CDC.

In addition to faulty data, the House hearing echoed the government’s false narrative blaming teen vaping on illegal retail sales and “kid-friendly marketing.”  But the FDA’s own research shows that more than 90 percent of teens who use e-cigarettes obtain them from social sources, such as friends or family. Only 10 percent of current teen vapers buy their own — and many of those are of age. Raising the purchasing age from 18 to 21 could potentially disrupt high school “black markets.”

Lawmakers also go after fears about nicotine. They reference the Surgeon General’s claim that nicotine is “very and uniquely harmful” to the developing brain, and that vaping can impair learning and memory in those up to age 25.  Scientific evidence to support this is non-existent. In contrast, there is unequivocal evidence linking youth football and other concussion-producing sports activities to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) (here, for example).  If Congress wanted to protect children’s brains, this would be a more productive area for their focus.

Nicotine is about as safe to use as caffeine, which is also addictive, but it doesn’t cause any of the many cancers, heart attacks, strokes and emphysema that come from the toxins released from burning tobacco.

Congress wants you to believe that the increase in teen vaping will lead to a surge in young adult smoking.  But the reality is just the opposite. Cigarette smoking dropped in half among young adults between 2014 and 2018. And while vaping increased, use of both products fell during the same period. Vaping is contributing to the evaporation of smoking among young Americans.

American teenagers are engaged in lots of risky behavior — but vaping, which the prestigious British Royal College of Physicians says is 95 percent less hazardous than smoking — is not one of them.

Congress should focus on how to really keep high school students safe.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

As Young Adult Smoking Evaporates, “Teen Vaping Epidemic” Appears Overblown

Federal officials have portrayed teen vaping as a pending disaster, creating a new generation of nicotine addicts heading for lifetimes of smoking and disease, culminating in early deaths.  The scenario is primarily based on a distorted and exaggerated interpretation of data in the National Youth Tobacco Survey. 

One way to judge the validity of these teen vaping claims is to look at what’s happening among young adults 18-24 years old.  If the government claims are accurate, we should see the disaster starting to unfold in this group.

The chart at left, based on the CDC’s National Health Interview Survey, shows the prevalence of current smoking and vaping among young adults from 2014 to 2018.  Exclusive smoking is in red, dual use is in pink, and vaping is in green (with former smokers in lighter green). 

The chart’s main message is seen in the sharp decline of red-pink.  Exclusive smoking prevalence dropped in half, from 13.3% to 6.1%, as did dual use.  Vaping increased, but only from 1.7% to 5.9%.  In fact, all use went from 18.3% in 2014, all the way down to 10.1% in 2018 – an impressive decline.  The clear takeaway is that smoking is evaporating among young Americans.

Some in Congress are intent on addressing the so-called crisis, as seen by Representatives Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Donna Shalala’s (D-FL) June 20 call for co-sponsors for H.R. 2339, the Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act of 2019.  In reality, the “epidemic” is already in reverse.