Monday, October 19, 2009

Misinformation from the American Dental Association

On October 9, the American Dental Association submitted a letter to the Food and Drug Administration in response to a federal register notice requesting public input on the role of the FDA in tobacco regulation. In the letter, available on the website, the ADA uses pseudo-scientific language to advocate for prohibition of all tobacco products, including smokeless tobacco. Following are some of the letter’s most absurd statements.

1. “We also ask that you begin your work by regulating industry assertions that smokeless tobacco is a healthier (or less harmful) alternative to cigarette smoking.”

While the ADA refers to “industry assertions” about the relative safety of various tobacco products, it ignores the growing number of independent health assessments from academia, public health organizations and other non-industry sources. The British Royal College of Physicians, the American Council on Science and Health and the American Association of Public Health Physicians have concluded that smokeless tobacco use is associated with a tiny fraction of the health risks of smoking.

The task of regulating “industry assertions” was intensively covered in the bill granting FDA regulatory control over tobacco. In fact, the agency was empowered to restrict any action that could “be reasonably expected” to result in “consumers believing” that an alternative tobacco product may have some health benefit vis a vis cigarettes. That’s not just regular commercial speech (e.g., advertisements), but ANY speech, and it’s one reason that several tobacco companies are suing in federal court to block this part of the law.

2. “Smokeless tobacco is not a healthy alternative to cigarette smoking; both products pose health risks. Compared with cigarettes, smokeless tobacco products are less likely to cause lung cancer but they are associated with oral (mouth) and pharyngeal (throat) cancers, as well as cancers of the stomach and pancreas (5,6,7,8).”

No one is suggesting that smokeless tobacco is a “healthy” alternative. The ADA is inappropriately manipulating the legitimate message of tobacco harm reduction.

At least the ADA admits that smokeless tobacco is “less likely” to cause lung cancer. In fact, the most comprehensive study of smokeless tobacco and cancer (previously discussed in this blog) revealed NO risk for lung cancer. Apparently, the ADA doesn’t consider the elimination of 125,500 deaths from lung cancer to be a sufficient public health gain to offset what it believes are risks from other cancers. That meta-analysis also proves that the ADA is wrong on the other cancers as well.

Note that three of the four numbered references supporting the ADA’s statements about other cancers were from the 1990s, when many experts mistakenly believed that smokeless products weren’t much safer than cigarettes. Either the ADA only reviewed selective scientific literature prior to 2000, or the organization chose to ignore irrefutable evidence supporting tobacco harm reduction. The fact is: If all U.S. smokers had instead used smokeless tobacco, cancers now attributable to smoking would plummet to around 1% of their current numbers.

3. “Researchers have found that adolescent boys who use smokeless tobacco products are highly likely to become cigarette smokers within four years (14).”

This is the ADA’s major rationale for its allegation that smokeless tobacco is a “gateway” to cigarette smoking. The reference is to a study by Scott Tomar, a staunch opponent of tobacco harm reduction at the University of Florida. Tomar’s theory has been disproven by Kozlowski and colleagues in published articles available here, here and here. These studies carefully examine datasets in order to determine whether ST or cigarettes were used first. They concluded that ST use plays no significant role in smoking initiation. The vast majority of smokers never used ST, and two-thirds of ST users either never smoked, or they smoked prior to using ST. That makes two-thirds of ST users ineligible to even be considered as gateway users.

It is not surprising that boys who use ST are more likely to become smokers, since experimentation with one tobacco product is closely linked to other similar behaviors. But opponents of harm reduction are deliberately confusing association with causation. Smoking among teenagers is also associated with alcohol use, drug use, risky driving, risky sex, bad grades and behavior problems, but it doesn’t cause them.

4. “That is one among many reasons former U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona classified the smokeless tobacco alternative as a ‘public health myth.’”

I am astounded that the ADA is still quoting the 2003 Congressional testimony of former Surgeon General Richard Carmona; he has virtually no credibility on this topic. I also testified at that hearing, and I was stunned by Carmona’s uneducated and completely inaccurate statements.

In his testimony, Carmona stated: “There is no significant scientific evidence that suggests smokeless tobacco is a safer alternative to cigarettes.” Carmona ignored decades of published research and the prestigious British Royal College of Physicians, who had reported a year earlier that smokeless tobacco products are “on the order of 10 to 1,000 times less hazardous than smoking”.

Carmona also testified that he wanted to ban tobacco products. Asked if he “would support banning or abolishing all tobacco products,” Carmona responded, “I would at this point, yes.” This marked the first time a Surgeon General had called for outright prohibition, and he sent would-be supporters running from the Hill. Even the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which has shown no interest in helping inveterate adult smokers, couldn’t support Carmona. Its spokesman commented that “We would all like to see a tobacco-free world…we can’t just take away their tobacco.” Bush administration officials responded quickly. “That is not the policy of the administration,” commented White House spokesman Scott McClellan, saying that Carmona’s comments represented only his views as a doctor.

The American Dental Association’s prohibitionist policy towards tobacco use is a disservice to dentists and their smoking patients; it denies them life-saving information about effective and vastly safer smokeless alternatives.

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