Since 2012 the government has spent nearly $2 million on a campaign to get women to nag the men in their lives to quit using smokeless tobacco.
The National Institutes of Health has sponsored a continuing grant for the Oregon Research Institute to “evaluate an innovative approach that encourages male smokeless tobacco users to quit by enlisting the support of their wives/partners, both to lead smokeless tobacco users to engage in treatment and to help them sustain abstinence.”
Researchers had already “established that women can be readily recruited” to get their husbands to quit chewing tobacco, but now the project is going a step further with a multimedia push that includes a website with an interactive and tailored support plan.
Researchers will conduct a randomized clinical trial to determine the effectiveness of the cessation program.
The program is raising eyebrows among taxpayer watchdogs, health advocates and activists on women’s issues, who see the expenditures as wasteful and gender pandering.
“American women don’t need the federal government spending money to get us to nag our husbands to stop using tobacco, we do that just fine on our own,” said Penny Nance, president and CEO of Concerned Women for America, a conservative women’s group. “Even if it were a worthwhile effort, we are $18 trillion in debt. We simply can’t afford it.”
Added Richard Manning, President of Americans for Limited Government, a spending watchdog: “One wonders if NIH has a companion grant program designed to teach dads how to cope with hostile environments in the household. With Congress in its annual appropriations season, defunding this unnecessary and destructive program should be an easy one.”
For using taxpayer dollars to recruit women for a task they are already quite capable of doing on their own, NIH wins this week’s Golden Hammer, a weekly distinction awarded by The Washington Times highlighting examples of wasteful federal spending.
NIH defended its research in an email to The Times, saying smokeless tobacco use has risen in certain populations and “positive support from a partner has been shown to be an important factor for effective quitting attempts.”
“Research into unhealthy human behaviors that are estimated to be the proximal cause of more than half of the disease burden in the U.S. will continue to be an important area of research supported by NIH,” the NIH said. “Only by developing effective prevention and treatment strategies for health-injuring behaviors can we reduce the disease burden in the U.S. and thus, enhance health and lengthen life, which is the mission of the NIH.”
But some experts say that using smokeless tobacco is relatively low-risk behavior compared to smoking cigarettes, and NIH should be focusing its research efforts on more serious health concerns.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 18 out of every 100 adults in the U.S. smoke, while fewer than 4 out of every 100 adults use smokeless tobacco.
According to the American Cancer Society website, “Smokeless tobacco products are less lethal than cigarettes: On average, they kill fewer people than cigarettes. But smokeless tobacco hurts and kills people all the same.”
“This is big government intervention for a small-risk lifestyle choice,” said Brad Rodu, a professor of medicine at the University of Louisville.
Mr. Rodu, who has been studying the effects of smokeless tobacco and smoking for over 20 years, said that there is substantial scientific evidence demonstrating that the risks of using smokeless tobacco are so small they can’t even be measured.
“There’s other much more important issues that the NIH could be supporting,” Mr. Rodu said. “Their mission is to enhance health, lengthen life and reduce illness. And trying to get wives of smokeless tobacco users to badger them to quit is very questionable.”
Other experts say that the effectiveness of federal and state tobacco- and smoking-cessation programs is debatable, and suggest that NIH and states should focus efforts and resources on other public health policies that produce larger results.
Early tobacco-control policy efforts that increased taxes on tobacco products were largely successful in reducing smoking, but more recent efforts, including smoking bans, have been less effective.
The CDC provides recommendations for how much money states should spend on anti-tobacco programs. Currently only two states (Alaska and North Dakota) are funding tobacco-control programs at the recommended level. Only five other states (Delaware, Oklahoma, Hawaii, Wyoming and Maine) fund tobacco-control programs at even half the recommended level.
According to the CDC, states will collect $25.6 billion from tobacco taxes and legal settlements in fiscal year 2015, but will only spend $490.4 million — less than 2 percent — on prevention and cessation programs.
Researchers at the Cato Institute found that spending large amounts of money on anti-tobacco programs seems to produce a trivial drop in cigarette sales — less than a pack a year per capita.
Between 2001 and 2011 the percentage of cigarette-smoking American adults dropped less than 4 percent, from 22.8 percent to 19 percent, according to the CDC.
“Government interventions to [stop] smoking are well intentioned. The lifelong health risks from smoking are plenty. But the effectiveness of smoking-cessation programs is limited. Yet the government continues to award grants to study the issue, potentially wasting millions in taxpayer dollars,” said Nicole Kaeding, a budget analyst at the Cato Institute think tank.
Other critics argue that using smokeless tobacco is an individual choice, and the government should not use taxpayer dollars to push an anti-tobacco agenda that’s best left to private activists and nonprofit organizations.
“It’s sort of a symptom of the whole ‘cradle to the grave the government is going to take care of us’ mentality,” said David Muhlhausen, a research fellow in empirical policy analysis at The Heritage Foundation.
Mr. Muhlhausen argued that tobacco users have to make the decision to quit on their own, and this project’s aim to get women to nag men who have no desire to quit will probably be a wash.
“I used to chew tobacco, and I quit because it’s gross,” Mr. Muhlhausen said. “So when you’re young and you’re a teenager or young adult, you don’t perceive it as a threat or a potentially bad activity, but I think most people wise up and understand that it’s not good for you.”
• Kellan Howell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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