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American Dental Association Improves Mouth Cancer and Smokeless Tobacco Brochures

Posted Mar 13 2013 11:09am

I have been critical of the American Dental Association’s distribution of misinformation about smokeless tobacco and tobacco harm reduction (discussed here and here ).  New ADA brochures on mouth cancer and smokeless tobacco show significant improvement  over their past publications.

The new pamphlet on mouth (and throat) cancer ( here ) accurately describes the disease as occurring “…most often in people who smoke cigarettes, cigars, or pipes and drink heavily (30 drinks or more per week).  That combination is estimated to cause the majority of mouth and throat cancers diagnosed in the United States.  Here are some additional risk factors:

• “Current research shows that some types of human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause throat cancer, which affects the base of the tongue and tonsils. HPV is very common— many people have the virus in their bodies and don’t even know it.

• “People who often spend long periods of time in the sun are at higher risk for lip cancer.” (emphasis in the original)

The brochure mentions one other risk factor, “a diet with too few fruits and vegetables,” but this is relevant mainly for people in developing countries, not in the U.S.

The new brochure on smokeless tobacco ( here ) drops many of the unscientific allegations that appeared in earlier versions and focuses a good deal on cessation.  Mouth cancer goes unmentioned, which is appropriate, given that the risk is so low. 

Still, the brochure is flawed.  Here are some questionable statements:

1.  “One can of smokeless tobacco has as much nicotine as 60 cigarettes or three packs.”  This is about as meaningless as claiming that one bottle of bourbon has as much alcohol as 19 cans of beer.  Just as responsible drinkers modulate their alcohol intake when using different products, smokeless users and smokers modulate their nicotine intake based on the products they use, attaining nearly the same peak nicotine blood level regardless of the source.  In comparing product nicotine levels, the ADA demonizes nicotine, which, while addictive, is not a major factor in any smoking-related illness.

2.  “Smokeless tobacco … has over 3,000 chemicals, including 28 cancer-causing substances.”  This is technically accurate but meaningless. One could also make the factual statement: “Coffee has over 1,000 chemicals, including 21 cancer-causing substances.” ( here )  Any food or drink is composed of thousands of chemicals, some of which are or may be carcinogens.  Focusing on these is a scare tactic, described by renowned biochemist Bruce Ames as “hysteria over tiny traces of chemicals that may or may not cause cancer.” ( here ). 

3.  “People may think that smokeless means harmless, but nothing could be further from the truth.”  No credible tobacco harm reduction scientist or advocate claims that any tobacco product is absolutely safe; suggesting otherwise is nothing but a straw-man argument. 

The truth about smokeless is readily apparent: A wealth of scientific data show that smokeless means almost no measurable health risk.
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