December 21, 2004,
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.
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?
Ken Boehm is chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a public-policy organization.