Smokeless Tobacco Is Less Harmful Really

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If you vaguely recall hearing that smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco, etc.) is about as dangerous as cigarettes, you're hardly alone but it isn't true.

Smokeless tobacco is only about one sixtieth as likely to kill mainly through oral cancers as cigarettes. Cigarettes cause the premature death of about one third of their users and have a host of other ill effects. See ACSH's newly-revised book, Cigarettes: What the Warning Label Doesn't Tell You for more on the risks.

  • Nonetheless, officials of the European Union ban smokeless tobacco on a continent shrouded in cigarette smoke (except in Sweden, where smokeless is popular and smoking has declined).
  • The U.S. Surgeon General, on the same day that he said he would support a ban on cigarettes, said he sees no safety advantage to smokeless tobacco. Presumably, he meant that neither is perfectly safe, but that's a very different thing than saying there's no difference.
  • The idea that all threats are equal in strength seems to be an attractive one, though. It's been brought to our attention that American Dental Association president D. Gregory Chadwick last year said: "I suppose you could argue that shooting yourself in the leg poses less of a health risk than shooting yourself in the head...But do we really need to have this discussion? Tobacco use kills people, period." The ADA joined the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other groups in a coalition statement calling on the Federal Trade Commission to prevent smokeless tobacco sellers from advertising that their products are less harmful than cigarettes.

But isn't it obvious that a gunshot to the leg is less of a health risk than a gunshot to the head? And it ought to be obvious that getting smokers to switch to smokeless could save millions of lives, even if a perfect world would have neither tobacco addicts nor gunshot wounds.

I make that argument in a bit more detail in an op-ed that's appeared in newspapers including South Dakota's Argus-Leader, Idaho's Coeur d'Alene Press, and in Arizona's East Valley Tribune.

ACSH hasn't formally taken a position on whether and how to promote smokeless products, but other experts will make the case for smokeless tobacco as an alternative to cigarettes at an AEI conference on June 25.

The idea isn't going to go away even if it hasn't yet got the approval of everyone in officialdom. Harm reduction is an idea with a long life expectancy.