Lies and the Health Nannies Who Tell Them


"Some people think smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco and snuff), pipes, and cigars are safer than cigarettes," says a pamphlet from the National Institute on Aging. "They are not."

Some people think you can rely on authoritative-sounding health information from the federal government. You can't.

Let's start with the basics. Smokeless tobacco, as the name suggests, does not involve smoking. Therefore smokeless tobacco users are not exposed to the toxins and carcinogens generated by combustion. You might think this difference would make smokeless tobacco a lot safer than cigarettes, and you would be right.

Cigars and pipes do involve smoking, of course, and therefore are more hazardous than oral snuff or chewing tobacco. But they differ from cigarettes in two important ways that affect health risks: Cigar and pipe smokers typically do not inhale, so they do not expose as much of their bodies to combustion products, and they typically smoke less than cigarette smokers. These differences show up in much lower tobacco-related disease rates among cigar and pipe smokers.

These facts are familiar to anyone who has looked at data on tobacco-related health risks, which ought to include federal officials who dispense advice about tobacco-related health risks. If the people responsible for the NIA pamphlet simply did not know what they were talking about, that would be embarrassing enough. But the misstatements in the pamphlet appear to be part of a deliberate strategy to scare people away from tobacco products by falsely implying (or, in this case, asserting) that they are all equally hazardous. In print, in congressional testimony, and in comments to the press, public health officials routinely blur the distinctions between tobacco products, because they've concluded that the public can't handle the truth.

[Thanks to Brad Rodu for the tip.]