Sunday, January 10, 2010

Words of Wisdom and Ignorance From the Media

Two prominent media articles this weekend clearly illustrate the challenges facing tobacco harm reduction in the U.S.

The words of wisdom come from Steve Chapman, a member of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board. Chapman has a longstanding interest in this issue; he wrote intelligent and informative articles in the Tribune in 2004 and in 2006. The current piece describes the American regulatory environment that prevents tobacco manufacturers from engaging in truthful communication with smokers about vastly safer smokeless products.

Chapman accepts the scientific rationale for tobacco harm reduction, citing the British Royal College of Physicians and the American Council on Science and Health. However, he writes, “The Royal College of Physicians can tell you… I can tell you…Alvin and the Chipmunks can tell you…But some people are not allowed to tell you…, namely the people who would be most inclined to take the trouble to spread the message: the people who run tobacco companies.”

Chapman keenly observes that Americans “…are laboring under the delusion -- lovingly preserved by federal policy -- that cigarettes are no more harmful than smokeless tobacco.” He describes the situation as “… the equivalent of believing it's safer to drive without a seat belt than with one.”

Unfortunately, it’s not just average Americans who are confused. An article in the Orlando Sentinel is proof that even Dr. Clarence Brown, president and CEO of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center-Orlando, is clueless on this topic.

Brown discusses New Year resolutions “…that could help fend off cancer.” Appropriately, Brown’s first resolution deals with smoking, but his advice is decidedly inappropriate and inaccurate. According to the article: “When it comes to tobacco use, Brown said it was an all or nothing proposition. ‘No level of usage is safe. Just one cigarette is harmful,’ Brown said. ‘Also, smokeless tobacco is just as harmful.’”

Dr. Brown’s inaccurate statement is inconsistent with and unworthy of the reputation of the M.D. Anderson cancer network. A 2004 study funded by the National Cancer Institute concluded that … “[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.”

I’ll let Steve Chapman have the last word: “Right now, American smokers are stumbling around in a dense cloud of ignorance, misinformation and propaganda. Letting smokeless tobacco companies dispense truth would do a lot to clear the air.”

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