Anti-tobacco zealots were no doubt pleased when the Department of Health and Human Services recently announced that it will ban the use of all tobacco products on its campuses starting January 1. Indoor smoking is, of course, already prohibited at HHS (just as it is at most office buildings), but the new ban includes even such smokeless tobacco products as chewing tobacco and snuff, and will eliminate the previously designated smoking areas outside HHS buildings.
Superficially, this might sound like a good idea. After all, smoking is bad for you, right? That is true. And many smokers who are trying to quit will tell you that themselves. But in truth, this new policy ignores a growing body of scientific research about smokeless tobacco.
For years, many governmental and health-advocacy organizations have lumped cigarettes and smokeless-tobacco products together and asserted that they pose identical health risks. But the facts don’t support such a conclusion. While not completely safe, smokeless-tobacco products are vastly less dangerous than cigarettes, and they can provide a helpful bridge to smoking cessation for smokers who want to quit.
Research by Britain’s Royal College of Physicians indicates that smokeless-tobacco products are 10 to 1,000 times less hazardous than smoking, depending on the exact products compared. It is not the nicotine in tobacco that is harmful, but primarily the burning of tobacco and the resulting smoke that yields cancer-causing carcinogens. Additionally, the dangers of secondhand smoke, which some say kills 40,000 Americans annually, are nonexistent with smokeless-tobacco products. Simply stated, smokeless tobacco does not result in any environmental tobacco smoke which harms others.
All this makes one wonder why HHS is set to ban smokeless tobacco from its facilities. After all, the National Institute on Aging, which is a division of HHS, earlier this year revised its position and printed materials regarding smokeless tobacco. This action was the direct result of a formal complaint filed by the organization I chair, the National Legal and Policy Center. It was our contention that the National Institute on Aging was disseminating inaccurate information regarding the relative risks of smokeless tobacco products, and thus violating the Data Quality Act.
As a result of our petition, the Institute “carefully reviewed scientific literature on the subject of smokeless tobacco,” the agency said in its letter to us. Furthermore, according to the letter, “because NIA is committed to providing precise and scientifically accurate information” it will discard existing inventory of their booklet, Smoking: It’s Never Too Late to Stop, in order to “print a new edition that is a more current statement of evidence-based information.”
The most significant development in all this is NIA’s acknowledgment of the lower risks associated with smokeless-tobacco products. The following was a factually incorrect statement in their literature: “Some people think smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco and snuff), pipes, and cigars are safer than cigarettes. They are not.” The NIA removed this statement.
This action by the NIA is commendable. It is done in recognition of research findings. Why can’t HHS follow the lead of one of its own agencies and take a more reasoned approach to policy rather than the announced ban on all tobacco products around its buildings? When an entity such as HHS, whose mission is to protect Americans’ health, ignores medical research and wanders down a road heedless of those research findings, we are all on a slippery slope. What is next? A ban on vending machines because they might dispense fattening snack food?
Americans deserve better from the Department of Health and Human Services.
–Ken Boehm is chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a public-policy organization.