Dispatch: Warning: Warnings Can Be Deceiving

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A New York Times health blog celebrates the advent of larger warning signs on smokeless tobacco products like snus, which were dictated by the 2009 FDA tobacco law: “Research has also shown that larger warning statements discourage users. … The new law requires a rotating set of larger warnings, including, ‘Warning: This product is not a safe alternative to cigarettes,’ ‘Warning: This product can cause mouth cancer,’ and ‘Warning: This product can cause gum disease and tooth loss.’”

“While these warnings are technically true, they are still overstating these dangers,” says Dr. Ross. “There is a risk of oral diseases as a result of using smokeless tobacco, including gum disease and oral cancers, but the risk is minimally elevated compared to that of nonusers of tobacco, and at least an order of magnitude less than that of cigarette smokers. When you make a statement such as, ‘This product is not a safe alternative to cigarettes,’ you are correct word for word. However, it gives the impression that snus is as dangerous as cigarette smoking, which is patently false.”

The blog contains the seemingly requisite reference to Harvard School of Public Health’s Dr. Greg Connolly warning, as usual, that the products promote dual use: “Dr. Connolly said the tobacco industry has been promoting smokeless products as a way to maintain a smoking habit, rather than quitting.”

“As we’ve said before, the tobacco companies are prohibited by this very law from telling addicted smokers that smokeless tobacco products can help them quit,” says Stier. “Therefore, the only advertising strategy they can use to promote these products for smokers is to say, ‘You can use this when you aren’t allowed to smoke.’ In other words, they are forced to promote dual use. But even so, every time a smoker uses snus, that is one less cigarette they need to get their nicotine fix.”