Friday, May 10, 2019

CDC Quit-Smoking Ads Lack Real-World Solutions

People regularly ask me why I’ve spent the last 25 years researching and advocating for tobacco harm reduction and related products.  While it’s difficult to provide a succinct answer, a powerful ad campaign from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention illustrates why I am dedicated to helping smokers. The campaign is called “Tips from Former Smokers”.

For the first 15 years of my career, I was on clinical staff at the Comprehensive Cancer Center of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  As an oral pathologist I made microscopic diagnoses of hundreds of cancers.  But as a clinician and member of a multidisciplinary team treating countless patients with mouth, throat and lung cancer, leukemia and other serious smoking-related diseases, I was compelled to search for practical quitting options for smokers just like Terrie, the patient in the CDC public service ad above.  Click here to watch the entire ad.

Those smokers reminded me always of my maternal grandfather.  He had smoked for most of his 65 years, despite the onset of heart disease that led to his early retirement from operating a dragline excavator in the coal strip mines of Western Pennsylvania.  I remember my great-grandfather, an underground coal miner who chewed tobacco until he passed away at age 99, pleading with him: “Worthy, every cigarette is another nail in your coffin.” 

My grandfather never quit, and in 1965 he suffered a stroke that left him hospitalized for months before he died.  Every night, my parents drove us 25 miles to visit him. One memory from that sad period is still with me: my grandfather, on oxygen and barely able to move or talk, begging his nurse for a cigarette.

For many tobacco opponents, patients like these are only an abstraction, numbers to be wielded in a fight for absolute prohibition.  Most extremists have never worked with smokers suffering from a devastating disease.  If they had, they would care enough to ensure that smokers are offered every option to quit before it’s too late.

That’s the frustrating thing about the CDC advertising.  It doesn’t endorse the most frequently used, and most frequently successful quitting aids: e-cigarettes.  Instead, the CDC pitches telephone quit-lines and gives smokers trite advice: “keep your mouth busy…do something else…go for a walk or a jog…take slow deep breaths.”  These tips are worthless for most of those who are desperate for their next cigarette. 

What about children?  After my lectures, I am often asked by parents, “What if my child learns about you and your ideas, then starts using smokeless tobacco or e-cigarettes?”

My answer: “What if, despite all of your good intentions and nurturing, your child becomes a smoker?  And what if, after 10 or 15 years, they are unable or unwilling to quit?  As a parent, wouldn’t you want your child to know about safer tobacco products?”

We have to keep tobacco out of the hands of children, but safer cigarette alternatives must not be regulated out of reach of their parents and grandparents, whose smoking habit leaves them desperate to avoid fatal illness.

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