Upon thinking of someone using “smokeless tobacco,” you may immediately think: a vile, disgusting habit with no redeeming social value. That, it turns out, is only half-true. It may be vile and disgusting with a good deal of social value.
Not in an absolute sense. Dipping snuff or chewing tobacco can lead to nicotine addiction, gum disease and even oral cancer, while scaring off potential employers and romantic partners in droves. But in relative terms -- relative to smoking -- it could be a boon to individual and public health. Any smoker who gives up cigarettes for snuff is clearly doing his or her body a favor.
That’s because most of the danger from tobacco actually comes from setting it afire and inhaling the smoke. Omitting that step makes a huge difference. A 2002 report by Britain’s Royal College of Physicians found that “the consumption of non-combustible tobacco is of the order of 10-1,000 times less hazardous than smoking, depending on the product.” The American Council on Science and Health puts the overall health risk at about 2 percent of that from sucking on a cancer stick.
The implications are obvious: The best thing a nicotine fiend can do is quit tobacco entirely. For the 46 million Americans who have not been able to follow that advice -- a number that has stubbornly refused to shrink -- the next best thing is to use the kind of tobacco that doesn’t require incineration. The change would also be a blessing to nonsmokers, who would no longer have to put up with noxious fumes and discarded butts.
The Royal College of Physicians can tell you that. I can tell you that. Alvin and the Chipmunks can tell you that. But some people are not allowed to tell you that, namely the people who would be most inclined to take the trouble to spread the message: the people who run tobacco companies.
They would like to. Reynolds American has urged the Food and Drug Administration to “encourage an open, public discussion of the potential reduction in risk that could result from” shifting smokers to non-smoked products. Altria asked the agency to adopt regulations that “provide meaningful pathways for accurate and non-misleading communication about such products to adult tobacco consumers.” In other words, let tobacco companies advise consumers that smokeless tobacco is far less risky than cigarettes, a fact that no one disputes.