Wednesday, October 19, 2011

New England Journal of Medicine Promotes Failed Policies for Smoking Control

The New England Journal of Medicine on September 29 published a commentary (here) promoting “total abstinence” with behavioral therapy and medicines, a strategy that has failed to help over 90% of smokers who tried to quit. The article, by Michael Fiore and Timothy Baker of the University of Wisconsin, reflects the nation’s dual obsession with smoking as a disease and nicotine- and tobacco-abstinence as the only cure.

Fiore and Baker use the terms “smoking” and “tobacco use” synonymously. They write, “more than 30% of deaths from cancer, 90% of cases of COPD and 30% of cases of cardiovascular disease in the United States are attributed to tobacco use…Tobacco use remains the chief avoidable cause of death in the United States…”

That is demonstrably false. Tellingly, in the next sentence they drop the phrase “tobacco use” and correctly use the word “smoking.” I have previously described the unfortunate consequences of such deliberate misinformation (here).

While Fiore and Baker advise health professionals to “note the effectiveness of seven FDA-approved medications for smoking cessation,” they acknowledge that a meta-analysis documented that the abstinence rate for nicotine medicines was a mere 9% at six months -- a 91% failure rate. Despite these dismal statistics, Fiore and Baker use the words “effective” or “effectiveness” at least 10 times in describing quit-smoking medicines. Interestingly, they write that patients don’t use medicines because they believe them to be “dangerous” and “ineffective.” Although smokers incorrectly believe that nicotine medicines are dangerous, they are correct in believing that they are largely ineffective.

Anti-tobacco extremists and most journal editors continue to ignore the scientific evidence for tobacco harm reduction, but some medical journals are putting it front and center (here). It is unfortunate that the New England Journal of Medicine devoted 10 pages to a misleading abstinence-only screed.

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