Upon thinking of someone using "smokeless tobacco," you may immediately think: a vile, disgusting habit with no redeeming social value. That, it turns out, is only half-true. It may be vile and disgusting with a good deal of social value.
Not in an absolute sense. Dipping snuff or chewing tobacco can lead to nicotine addiction, gum disease, and even oral cancer, while scaring off potential employers and romantic partners in droves. But in relative terms—relative to smoking—it could be a boon to individual and public health. Any smoker who gives up cigarettes for snuff is clearly doing his or her body a favor.
That's because most of the danger from tobacco actually comes from setting it afire and inhaling the smoke. Omitting that step makes a huge difference. A 2002 report by Britain's Royal College of Physicians found that "the consumption of non-combustible tobacco is of the order of 10-1,000 times less hazardous than smoking, depending on the product." The American Council on Science and Health puts the overall health risk at about 2 percent of that from sucking on a cancer stick.
The implications are obvious: The best thing a nicotine fiend can do is quit tobacco entirely. For the 46 million Americans who have not been able to follow that advice—a number that has stubbornly refused to shrink—the next best thing is to use the kind of tobacco that doesn't require incineration. The change would also be a blessing to nonsmokers, who would no longer have to put up with noxious fumes and discarded butts.
The Royal College of Physicians can tell you that. I can tell you that. Alvin and the Chipmunks can tell you that. But some people are not allowed to tell you that, namely the people who would be most inclined to take the trouble to spread the message: the people who run tobacco companies.
They would like to. Reynolds American has urged the Food and Drug Administration to "encourage an open, public discussion of the potential reduction in risk that could result from" shifting smokers to non-smoked products. Altria asked the agency to adopt regulations that "provide meaningful pathways for accurate and non-misleading communication about such products to adult tobacco consumers." In other words, let tobacco companies advise consumers that smokeless tobacco is far less risky than cigarettes, a fact that no one disputes.
These corporations make not only cigarettes and snuff but also a new product, snus (rhymes with moose), which provides tobacco in a dissolvable pouch that eliminates the need for unseemly spitting. So they are in a position both to promote smoking cessation and make money off alternatives to cigarettes, giving them a keen incentive to invest in informative ads.
Right now, Americans could use that kind of illumination. A 2005 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that only 11 percent of smokers who were aware of smokeless tobacco think it is safer than cigarettes, while 83 percent disagree—which is the equivalent of believing it's safer to drive without a seat belt than with one.
Critics, however, see nothing whatsoever to be said for smokeless tobacco. In fact, they want to raise taxes on such products to keep buyers away. They fear that far from serving to move smokers from cigarettes to smokeless tobacco, any ads discussing the comparative dangers will move nonsmokers to become enslaved to nicotine, which in turn will lead them to congregate on the sidewalk, puffing away.
But the evidence points in the other direction. As the popularity of snus rose in Sweden, smoking fell sharply, to the point that Swedes now have the world's lowest smoking rate. Youngsters there who partake of snus are less likely, not more, to take up cigarettes.
The Royal College of Physicians says that "the large majority of U.S. smokeless users do not in fact progress to smoking." And if some American snuff users go on to become smokers, said the group, it may be because they are laboring under the delusion—lovingly preserved by federal policy—that cigarettes are no more harmful than smokeless tobacco.
Right now, American smokers are stumbling around in a dense cloud of ignorance, misinformation, and propaganda. Letting smokeless tobacco companies dispense truth would do a lot to clear the air.
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