“A majority of adults do not think smokeless tobacco is less harmful than cigarettes,” according to a study by the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products and the Tobacco Control Research Branch of the National Cancer Institute.

Sheri P. Feirman and colleagues analyzed responses to a question in the Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS), 2012, 2014, and 2015: “Do you believe that some smokeless tobacco products, such as chewing tobacco and snuff, are less harmful than cigarettes?”

Do You Believe that Some Smokeless Tobacco Products…Are Less Harmful Than Cigarettes?
2012 2014 2015
Yes 9.4% 12.0% 10.9%
No 73.5% 72.1% 66.8%
Don’t Know 17.1% 15.9% 22.2%

Simply put, only 9 to 12 percent of Americans correctly believe that smokeless tobacco is less harmful than cigarettes.

In a PubMed Commons commentary on this study, David Sweanor and I note:

The article failed to specify that the correct answer [to the question] is:  ‘Yes, smokeless tobacco products are less harmful than cigarettes.’  The article instead focuses on the majority of participants who inaccurately answered ‘No’ or ‘Don’t Know,’ which demonstrates the misperception fostered by an effective ‘quarantine’ of truthful risk information by federal agencies (Kozlowski and Sweanor, 2016).

Decades of epidemiologic studies have documented that the health risks of smokeless tobacco use are, at most, 2 percent those of smoking (Rodu and Godshall, 2006Rodu, 2011Fisher 2017Royal College of Physicians, 2002Lee and Hamling, 2009).  Unlike cigarettes, smokeless tobacco does not cause lung cancer, heart and circulatory diseases or emphysema.  The Royal College of Physicians concluded in 2002: ‘As a way of using nicotine, the consumption of non-combustible [smokeless] tobacco is on the order of 10–1,000 times less hazardous than smoking, depending on the product.’

Low risks from smokeless tobacco use extend to mouth cancer.  A 2002 review documented that men in the U.S. who use moist snuff and chewing tobacco have minimal to no risk for mouth cancer (Rodu and Cole, 2002), and a recent federal study found no excess deaths from the disease among American men who use moist snuff or chewing tobacco (Wyss, 2016).

As one of us recently wrote, ‘Deception or evasion about major differences in product risks is not supported by public health ethics, health communication or consumer practices.  Public health agencies have an obligation to correct the current dramatic level of consumer misinformation on relative risks that they have fostered.’ (Kozlowski and Sweanor, 2018).

The FDA and NCI must be more forthcoming with the American public.

Image by arcticphotoworks


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