State Rips Plan To Label Snuff `Safer' Tobacco
Early in his career, veteran ballplayer and broadcaster Joe Garagiola roomed during spring training with a teammate who, before retiring, would spread newspapers on the floor around his bed so he could chew while reclining and spit on the floor.
After eight or nine years of chewing tobacco himself, Garagiola quit when his young daughter - who was studying the effects of tobacco in school - asked him if he was going to die. "That was it for me," he said.
These days, Garagiola, 76, speaks out against smokeless tobacco as part of the National Spit Tobacco Education Program. He appeared Wednesday at a press conference with oral cancer survivor Gruen Von Behrens of Stewardson, Ill., and state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.
Their target was Greenwich-based UST Inc. and its subsidiary, United States Smokeless Tobacco Co. In February, UST asked the Federal Trade Commission to allow it to tell consumers that smokeless tobacco products - such as UST's Copenhagen and Skoal - are safer alternatives to cigarette smoking.
"It's almost criminal," Dr. Michael Egan, president of the state dental association, said of UST's request.
Von Behrens, 25, said he began using smokeless tobacco at 13 and was diagnosed with oral cancer at 17. Today, 30 operations later, his lower face is severely disfigured and half of his tongue has been removed, along with his teeth, half of his neck muscles and nearby lymph nodes.
"Don't use it," Von Behrens said, as he broke into tears. "It ruined my life."
Blumenthal said he hoped the outcry against UST might persuade the company to withdraw its request - or the commission to reject it. He said that he and other attorneys general would also consider legal action against UST. After the press conference, Blumenthal acknowledged that smokeless tobacco is probably less dangerous than cigarettes but said the comparison is misleading, because smokeless tobacco is such a hazardous product. Spit tobacco users are up to 50 times more likely than nonusers who don't smoke to get oral cancer, which kills 8,000 Americans a year.
Blumenthal said that calling snuff and related products safer than cigarettes is like saying that it's safer to drive 100 mph on a winding, country road than to drive 140 mph.
There's a growing debate in the public health community over tobacco harm reduction; the idea is that, short of getting people to quit, measures can be taken to reduce the damage done by cigarettes. For example, several "safer" cigarettes - with reduced levels of certain cancer-causing compounds - are under development.
Richard Verheij, executive vice president and general counsel of UST, said that his firm sees smokeless tobacco as a potential component in a harm-reduction strategy and has asked the FTC how it might best inform consumers.
One researcher cited by Verheij, Lynn Kozlowski, professor and head of the Department of Biobehavioral Health at Pennsylvania State University, has done research on smoking for more than 25 years. Kozlowski - who said he has never taken tobacco company funding - said that smokeless tobacco does not cause lung cancer or respiratory illness. These account for about 60 percent of the deaths from smoking. And although smokeless products increase the risk for oral cancer, he said, there is evidence that cigarette use poses a much higher risk of oral cancer.
"It is bad for you," Kozlowski said of snuff and other spit tobacco products. "It's not a safe alternative, but it is a much, much safer alternative to cigarettes." For hard-core smokers who haven't been able to quit using medicinal nicotine, such as patches and gum, smokeless tobacco might help, he said.
But Gregory Connolly, director of the Tobacco Control Program of the Massachusetts State Department of Public Health, said that the narrow comparison misses the broader picture. Smokeless tobacco makers and cigarette manufacturers together sell nicotine addiction, he said.
There is little evidence that smokeless tobacco helps smokers quit, but plenty to show that it is a gateway to cigarettes, he said. Kids who chew tobacco or use snuff are three times more likely to become smokers, he said. Adults who use smokeless tobacco are two-and-a-half times more likely to smoke. Use of the product by pregnant women could affect unborn children.