Tuesday, April 6, 2004

Back in the 1950s, long before government-mandated health warnings appeared on cigarette packs, children were encouraged to believe the myth that smoking would “stunt your growth.” It was a well-intentioned, if ineffective, misinformation campaign carried out by parents — many of whom smoked in those days — in the hopes that their kids might at least delay experimenting with tobacco. Many of those kids grew up to join the ranks of the 46 million Americans who still smoke today and are trying to kick the habit. Unfortunately, the federal government is treating these adults like children and feeding them dangerously inaccurate information about options that could help them quit smoking.

Scientific evidence abounds that there are different levels of risk associated with the various types of tobacco products. More importantly, there are tobacco products of the smokeless variety that can serve as an aid in helping people quit smoking. This is apparently not a message the National Institute on Aging (NIA) wants the public to hear. So in the spirit of Big Brother, this arm of the sprawling Health and Human Services Department is trying its own form of thought control and spending your tax dollars and mine to do it.

The NIA recently produced a publication with the helpful sounding title of “Smoking: It’s never too late to stop.” So far so good, but the NIA publication — made available to the world via the Internet — went on to say “Some people think that smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco and snuff), pipes and cigars are safer than cigarettes. They are not.”

That statement is totally wrong as it applies to smokeless tobacco products. So wrong that it inspired our organization, the National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC), to file a formal complaint with the NIA asking that this false information be corrected in all the agency’s publications — immediately.

The NLPC is an organization for promoting ethics and accountability in government. We recognize the NIA’s misstatements about smokeless tobacco as dangerously misleading. I say dangerously because more than 400,000 Americans die every year from smoking related diseases. Most smokers who put themselves at risk are not unaware of the well-documented health dangers of smoking, but their addiction to nicotine is stronger than their fear of cancer or heart disease. Tobacco products that pose reduced risks can save lives among this group by offering a much safer form of nicotine than cigarettes.

Since tobacco products of any kind are now politically incorrect, government agencies like the NIA seem intent on imposing what has been called the “quit or die” mentality on the public. They would cut off any discussion on reduced risk products as a much safer, although admittedly not risk-free, alternative to smoking.

I can’t imagine that the government’s 2004 version of the thought police aren’t aware that leading research studies in the United States support the merits of reduced risk tobacco products as an alternative to smoking. According to researchers, if all of America’s 46 million smokers were instead smokeless tobacco users, the number of Americans dying of tobacco-related diseases every year would drop from 419,000 to 6,000. Nor can they be ignorant of the practical success smokeless tobacco products have had in cutting down the lung cancer rate in Sweden. After male smokers in Sweden made a large-scale shift from cigarettes to the Swedish smokeless tobacco product “snus,” the country’s lung cancer rate dropped to the lowest in all of Europe.

This is the kind of evidence Americans should be able to review and make their own decisions. Despite the best efforts of the largest government bureaucracy in the history of the republic, Americans still prefer to do their own thinking. And as we do our own thinking on the merits of reduced-risk products such as smokeless tobacco, none of us needs misinformation supplied by our own government.

Ken Boehm is chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center.

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