Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Truth About Federal Warnings on Smokeless Tobacco Products

Cigarette smokers who are considering a switch to vastly safer smokeless tobacco are confronted with confusing government-ordered warning labels. Most would be surprised to learn that three of the four mandated warnings were fabricated by tobacco prohibitionists and codified into federal legislation in 1986 by a misinformed U.S. Congress. Despite their obvious flaws, the original warnings were re-confirmed in the 2009 Tobacco Act and a fourth was added.

Here are the underlying facts and fallacies related to the four warnings:

1. “This product can cause mouth cancer.” This warning was mandated in 1986, five years after Dr. Deborah Winn egregiously misinformed Americans about the magnitude and scope of mouth cancer risk from smokeless tobacco (discussed previously in this blog here and here). This warning is highly misleading. Contemporary American and Swedish smokeless products confer vanishingly small risk for mouth cancer. Now that the FDA has been given authority over the warnings, I hope the agency will provide comprehensive information about all health risks, as I did in this blog (here and here).

2. “This product can cause gum disease and tooth loss.” In 1986, prohibitionists were desperate to blame smokeless tobacco for causing something besides mouth cancer, but twenty-five years ago there was virtually no scientific evidence that smokeless tobacco was an independent risk factor for any dental problem. The same is true today. A comprehensive review of the subject was published by Kallischnigg and colleagues in BMC Oral Health in 2008 (available here). The risk for all dental problems is either very low or nonexistent among smokeless tobacco users.

3. “This product is not a safe alternative to cigarettes.” The purpose of this 1986 warning was to deceive smokers into believing that smokeless tobacco was just as dangerous as smoking. As I wrote in my 1995 book, For Smokers Only: How Smokeless Tobacco Can Save Your Life (link), this warning “is simply ludicrous…Not even potato chips or nature hikes are ‘safe.’ If we look at ‘safe’ to mean relatively safe or ‘safer,’ something the government warnings inanely avoid here, then use of smokeless tobacco products is far safer than cigarette smoking.”

To apply an absolute standard of safety to any product or activity is preposterous. It’s worse to use this standard to deny smokers access to life-saving smokeless products and information.

4. “Smokeless tobacco is addictive.” This was added in the 2009 legislation, and it’s the only warning with a legitimate scientific rationale. It is entirely appropriate for consumers to be warned that any product containing nicotine is addictive. But the warning also reinforces what switchers already know -- that smokeless tobacco can be a satisfying cigarette substitute precisely because it provides satisfying doses of nicotine.

Congress was misinformed in 1986, when it dictated the mouth-cancer, gum-disease and not-safe warnings for smokeless tobacco. In view of the extensive relative risk data published since then, Congress should have revised the warnings to reflect the facts, rather than just rubber-stamp them in 2009.

The FDA prides itself on being science-driven; that provides some hope that smokeless tobacco warnings will some day be appropriately and accurately revised. In the meantime, the mouth-cancer, gum-disease and not-safe warnings exaggerate and distort the vanishingly small health impact of smokeless tobacco. Medical ethics and principles of public health dictate that smokers and smokeless tobacco users should not be subject to such health-endangering deception.

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