Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Government’s Abstinence from Smokeless Truth Detailed by Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal on July 21 reported what readers of this blog already know: “Many scientists agree that…smokeless tobacco, including chewing and dipping tobacco, is significantly less harmful than cigarettes.  But rather than encouraging the country’s 37 million smokers to switch to less-risky products, U.S. health officials have so far stuck with an abstinence-only message to the public.”

Journalist Jennifer Maloney underscored the government’s withholding of relative risk information about smokeless tobacco: “Online fact sheets published by the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Cancer Institute list multiple health risks associated with smokeless tobacco…but give no indication it is less harmful than cigarettes. ‘There is no safe form of tobacco,’ the cancer institute says on its website.”

Scientific research says otherwise.  Although it is impossible to prove absolute safety, dozens of epidemiologic studies over three decades have documented that health risks among American chewers and dippers are not significantly elevated.  Last year, a government study failed to find any mouth cancer risk among men who chew or dip (here). 

The CDC claims that it is unable to provide risk estimates for smokeless users (here, here and here).  Yet researchers from Altria produced them from CDC data; these are seen in the chart above (source here).  Smokeless users’ risks were comparable to those of nonusers of tobacco, whereas smokers had twice the risk of dying.

That Altria was able produce these dramatic results from CDC’s data underscores the government’s refusal to acknowledge the scientific truth about smokeless tobacco’s reduced harm profile. That is irresponsible and contrary to public health interests.

Federal health officials told Maloney, “more research needs to be done on the potential population-level consequences of broadcasting the fact that some tobacco products are safer than cigarettes.” 

Such facts should not be withheld from the American public.  Here is the consequence of public health officials’ persistent obfuscation and mendacity:

There were 8.1 million smokeless users in 2014, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) (here), and 41% of them were also smokers.  This means that 3.36 million Americans are equally comfortable and satisfied using nearly harmless chew or dip, and smoking, which is deadly.  Government data shows that smokers have no idea that they are needlessly putting their lives at risk (here).  Federal agency leaders are aware of the differential risks, but choose not to push that potentially life-saving information to the public. 

The Wall Street Journal is to be applauded for helping to expose this transgression.

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