01 Apr 2004 Health Activists Suppress Information on Safer Alternative to Smoking, by Gregory Parker
Despite decades of health warnings, negative ad campaigns and tobacco’s well-established bad reputation, 46 million Americans continue to smoke. For many, it’s an addiction to the nicotine found in cigarettes that keeps them puffing.
There is an alternative, but those claiming they want to stop smoking are an impediment.
Smokeless tobacco, now available in pills as an alternative to spit-inducing loose tobacco, delivers nicotine at a significantly reduced risk. Short-sighted public health activists, however, remain committed to a “quit-or-die” strategy that prolongs the nation’s love affair with cigarettes and their associated health problems.
A government panel in Washington, D.C. last month discussed tobacco use among minorities. Despite a history of directing more advertising at blacks as detailed by Public Health Reports and the Stanford Prevention Research Center, the percentage of black and white smokers is about equal and the total number of black smokers is proportionate to our percentage of the population. There has been a sharp increase in black teen smoking that should cause us concern.
While the meeting primarily emphasized efforts to get smokers to quit and prevent others from starting, there was little discussion of alternatives for those who won’t part with their nicotine.
My grandmother was a smoker who died of lung cancer at the age of 52. As a result, I have never smoked. I teach these values to my son. At the same time, I understand nicotine is addictive, and I support safer ways for people to get it if it’s clear they are willing to put their life at risk and inconvenience others to get it. That’s where I fault the anti-smoking lobby.
Nicotine is addictive, but it’s not deadly. It’s the smoke from cigarettes, cigars and pipes that causes cancer, emphysema and heart and lung disease. It’s hard to believe a smoker doesn’t understand the peril when there’s an explicit warning on every pack of cigarettes. Since that warning appeared in 1965, the percentage of American smokers fell from 42 percent of the population to 25 percent.
Those remaining smokers either don’t care about the risk or have decided to disregard it. For those who want to quit, nicotine gum and patches have only a seven percent success rate. Advice from the government is no better. In a publication for physicians, the National Institute of Health suggests knitting, using a straw to mimic a cigarette and “keeping a daydream ready to go” as ways to fight nicotine cravings.
The next logical step should be finding a safer alternative to smoking. That’s where smokeless tobacco can help.
Swedish men began switching from cigarettes to smokeless tobacco in the 1960s. Now, that nation has the lowest level of tobacco-related deaths in the developed world and the lowest rate of male smokers in Europe.
If all 46 million American smokers switched to smokeless tobacco, University of Alabama pathology professor Brad Rodu notes, there would still be a health risk. He estimates 6,000 deaths annually would result from tobacco-related oral cancer. But that risk would be down from 11,500 oral cancer deaths now tied to smoking. Additionally, a complete switch to smokeless tobacco use would reduce the current 145,000 non-oral cancer-related deaths, 273,000 deaths from heart and lung disease and 3,000 other annual smoking-related deaths to zero.
Reducing tobacco-related mortality from 419,000 to 6,000 should be a source of great joy for public health advocates. Sadly, that’s not been the case. Smokeless tobacco is still tobacco and, to these people, all tobacco is bad.
When the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company asked the Federal Trade Commission for permission to advertise the decreased risks of smokeless tobacco over cigarettes, 39 public health groups, including the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and American Lung Association, urged the request be denied. Oral Health America waged a media campaign against the proposal. The company withdrew its request months later, and most smokers continue to smoke, unaware of this less dangerous alternative.
Those who want to quit smoking deserve to know there is an alternative that presents a reduced health risk. Public health crusaders should set aside their bias against tobacco to promote a healthier America.