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Death By Denied Information, by Jay Ambrose

Death By Denied Information, By Jay Ambrose

July 25, 2003, Scripps Howard News Service

What the U.S. government won't tell you could kill you, at least when it comes to smokeless tobacco, a product that's not nearly as dangerous to consume as cigarettes.

The government hints without usually being precise that snuff and chewing tobacco are just as lethal as the smoking addiction that kills 440,000 Americans a year, but ask for hard, comparative data, and the government types dive for the bushes. They don't produce any, and it's clear why not. The data refute the stance.

The government theory, in part, is that the comparative data would be of no avail - that there is not much evidence that smokeless tobacco helps people quit and that it might be a deterrent to people giving up tobacco altogether. The "prevention message," I was told, "could be undercut."

Another justification is that the data would mislead teenagers into nicotine slavery - but surely the government can figure out a way to communicate facts without enticing teens into stupidities.

Here are two counter theories of why the government (ital) should (endital) produce the data.

First, reliable information could lead many can't-quit smokers to switch, thereby saving thousands and even millions of lives over the years.

Second, a refusal to provide the information - especially when accompanied by suggestions counter to what that information reveals - is in effect a lie. The government is not supposed to lie to the citizenry even when it thinks its lying is in the citizenry's interests. Keep information away from me - a free, self-accountable American - and you are depriving me of the knowledge needed to make decisions as I see fit.

Terry Pechacek told me in the government's defense that at least some of the data might not be reliable. The associate director for science of the Centers for Disease Control's Office of Smoking and Health, he says the government is not "concluding that there is no reduction of risk" by switching. It is even "a reasonable guess" that there would be a reduction, he says. Then came his qualifications, which include a concern about the accuracy of some of the information and a concern about "recommending" something "that turns out to be wrong."

Give Dr. Brad Rodu his turn at the podium, and you get a vastly different view. He is a professor of oral pathology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a researcher in the field and someone who has testified before Congress on the subject. Some of his points:

- Use of smokeless tobacco increases the risk of mouth cancer, but only half as much as cigarette smoking increases the risk of mouth cancer over those who do not smoke. Smokeless users have no increased risk of emphysema or lung cancer, and no increased risk of heart disease.

- Smoking cigarettes is 98 percent more dangerous than using smokeless tobacco. A long-term smoker will live eight years less than a non-smoker. A smokeless user will live 15 days less than someone who uses tobacco in no form.

- There have been numerous studies of this issue, he said, including his own. They support the conclusion that smokeless use is far less dangerous than smoking.

According to Rodu, hundreds of thousands have used smokeless to quit smoking, and he contends the government's various expressed concerns go poof when you put them up against the lives that could be saved if smokers otherwise unable to end their addiction turned to smokeless.

Rodu, it has to be mentioned, gets research dollars from the smokeless industry, which attaches no strings. It also needs to be mentioned that much of his research was conducted before he got a cent from the industry, and that there are researchers concurring with his views who have never received a cent from the industry, among them Lynn Kozlowski, a professor at Pennsylvania State University. Kozlowski has noted that government agencies have said on Web sites that "smokeless tobacco is not safer than cigarettes" and argues that this is false and unethical.

Of course, it is. Smokeless tobacco is a health menace. It is a vile, ugly addiction. No one should use it except as an aid to quitting smoking if nothing else has worked, but if they have the facts, many are going to figure that using it in that fashion is better than the huge risk of smoking themselves to death. If the government does not supply the facts, the government is complicit in many of those deaths.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Contact him at AmbroseJ@SHNS.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com