Program urges smokers switch to smokeless tobacco

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In the smoker-heavy state of Kentucky, a cancer center is suggesting something that most health experts won’t and the tobacco industry can’t: If you really want to quit, switch to smoke-free tobacco.

The James Graham Brown Cancer Center and the University of Louisville are aiming their “Switch and Quit” campaign at the city of Owensboro. It uses print, radio, billboard and other advertising to urge smokers to swap their cigarettes for smokeless tobacco and other products that do not deliver nicotine by smoke.

Supporters say smokers who switch are more likely to give up cigarettes than those who use other methods such as nicotine patches, and that smokeless tobacco carries less risk of disease than cigarettes do.

“We need something that works better than what we have,” said Dr. Donald Miller, an oncologist and director of the James Graham Brown Cancer Center, which supports the effort along with the University of Louisville. “This is as reasonable a scientific hypothesis as anybody has come up with and it needs to be tried.”

The campaign runs counter to the prevailing opinion of the public health community, which holds that there is no safe way to use tobacco. Federal researchers, however, have begun to at least consider the idea that smokers might be better off going smokeless.

The National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health says on its website that the use of all tobacco products “should be strongly discouraged,” and that there is “no scientific evidence that using smokeless tobacco can help a person quit smoking.” But this year it approved funding for a study that might provide some of that very evidence.

“Switch and Quit” is directed by Brad Rodu, a professor of medicine at the University of Louisville. He analyzed the 2000 National Health Interview Survey and found that male smokers who switched to smokeless tobacco were more likely to quit smoking than those who used nicotine patches or gum.

“Americans are largely misinformed about the relative risks. … They think smokeless tobacco is just as dangerous,” Rodu said. “This level of misinformation is an enormous barrier to actually accomplishing tobacco-harm reduction because if people believe that the products have equal risk, there’s not a real incentive.”

The program is funded through Rodu’s research money, which includes grants from the tobacco industry. Grants through the University of Louisville are unrestricted, which the program says “ensures the scientific independence and integrity of research projects and activities.”

“There’s absolutely no influence whatsoever,” Rodu said. “I decide, along with my colleagues, how we use the money, for what projects, and this is entirely the case. I would not have a situation where there was some control over the kind of projects I undertake.”

Tobacco companies want to market more smokeless tobacco and other cigarette alternatives to make up for falling cigarette sales. Some have introduced “snus” _ small pouches like tea bags that users stick between the cheek and gum _ and dissolvable tobacco _ finely milled tobacco shaped into orbs, sticks and strips.

But they’re barred by federal law from explicitly marketing them as less risky than cigarettes _ at least for now. That means the “Switch and Quit” program can do something the tobacco industry itself cannot: claim that smokeless tobacco has a health benefit when compared to smoking.

The program says smoking kills about 220 adults a year in and around Owensboro. The state of Kentucky, a leading tobacco grower, has the nation’s highest smoking and lung cancer rates.

Owensboro and the surrounding area consume about 3 million cigarettes a week, according to the program. That amounts to well over a pack for every man, woman and child in the community of about 115,000 people.

Owensboro resident Vernon Goode had smoked for about 10 years before he recently traded his Marlboros for dissolvable tobacco tablets. The campaign didn’t inspire him to quit, but he said he thought it was a good idea.

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