“See, in my line of work,” said President George W. Bush in 2005, “you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.”

Confusing truth with propaganda is a chronic disease among federal officials.

I documented in 2010 that three Food and Drug Administration appointees repeatedly conflated “tobacco” and “smoking” in a high-profile New England Journal of Medicine article.  Three years later, federal officials are still distorting the truth.

Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA Center for Tobacco Products, supplied these appalling comments in a November 6 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation interview:

It’s really stunning that in 2013 – with everything that we know about the harms associated with TOBACCO use – that it remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease both in this country and globally. (emphasis added)

Stunning, indeed, but the fact is that smoking is the killer, not tobacco.  Zeller knows the truth. He has spent more than 30 years working on tobacco issues, as associate commissioner and director of the FDA’s first Office of Tobacco Programs, at the American Legacy Foundation and as a vice president at the influential consulting group Pinney and Associates.

Zeller, in the same interview, did acknowledge the continuum of risk:

 There are different nicotine-containing and nicotine-delivering products that pose different levels of risk to the individual.  Right now, the overwhelming majority of people seeking nicotine are getting it from the deadliest and most toxic delivery system, and that’s the conventional cigarette.

Having recognized this, FDA officials should stop using TOBACCO as a synonym for smoking.

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention Director Dr. Tom Frieden also suffers from the fact-vs-propaganda flu when it comes to tobacco and smoking.  In a recent interview with USA Today, he said:

We work 24/7 protecting Americans from threats, whether these threats are from this country or anywhere in the world, whether they are natural or man-made, whether they are infectious or chronic.  Overall, if you look at what’s making Americans sick and killing us, TOBACCO remains, unfortunately, the leading cause of preventable death, more than 440,000 people a year, more than 1,000 a day, every single day, are killed by TOBACCO.

The CDC routinely publishes the exact number of deaths from smoking: it’s currently 392,681 among smokers and 49,400 from secondhand smoke.  But that’s not the number of deaths from TOBACCO.  In truth, the number of deaths attributable to smokeless tobacco is so low that the CDC and the American Cancer Society have never reported it, even though they have the information.

Americans expect their government to protect them from threats; among the most insidious and destructive are intentionally misleading public health statements from federal officials.

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