Country Singer Targeted by Tobacco Nannies

Published August 26, 2005

Tennessee government officials have made country singer Gretchen Wilson the latest target of their anti-tobacco zealotry.

In concert, Wilson apparently pulls a can of smokeless tobacco from her pocket while singing “Skoal Ring,” a track from the “All Jacked Up” album she will release in late September. In an August 25 letter to the singer, Tennessee Attorney General Paul Summers writes, “I ask you to take steps to warn young people of negative health effects of smokeless tobacco use.”

Pardon my country, but that hound dog is barking up the wrong tree.

Research consistently shows smokeless tobacco poses substantially lower health risks than smoking does. The positive health effects for those who switch from smoking to smokeless tobacco are well known and understood among researchers, but not generally among the public.

Compared to nonsmokers, persons who smoke lose, on average, 6 or 7 years off their lives. Those who use smokeless tobacco lose approximately .04 years, or about 15 days.

The most widely cited risk of smokeless tobacco is oral cancer, although epidemiological studies have shown cigarettes pose a higher risk for oral cancer. There is no lung cancer risk associated with smokeless tobacco, nor is there a risk of heart disease.

According to Dr. Brad Rodu, professor and past chairman of oral pathology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and currently senior scientist at the university’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, smokeless tobacco is 98 percent safer than smoking.

Dr. Neal Benowitz, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco and director of its cancer center’s Tobacco Control Program, told Los Angeles Times reporter Valerie Reitman for a 2004 article, “If someone can’t quit smoking, there is no question that smokeless is much safer. It doesn’t cause heart or lung disease, and if it does cause cancer, it does so at a much lower rate.”

Sweden’s experience with smokeless tobacco offers a useful case study. During the past 40 years, a large percentage of Swedish smokers, primarily men, have switched from smoking cigarettes to using a moist snuff product called “snus.”

Over that period, Sweden’s cancer rates for men, including rates of oral cancer, have declined and are the lowest in Europe. By contrast, cancer rates for Swedish women, who did not make the switch to smokeless tobacco in nearly the numbers men did, remain as high as rates for most other European women.

Advocates of the “harm elimination” approach to tobacco–Summers would appear to be one of them–generally support high taxes on all tobacco products and adamantly oppose any advertising that would publicize the significantly reduced risks of smokeless tobacco compared to cigarettes. From their perspective, all tobacco use is bad, and recognizing that some forms of tobacco use are significantly less harmful than others is unacceptable.

Harm reduction advocates, by contrast, support allowing the public to better understand the comparative risks between smoking, smokeless tobacco, and quitting. This would include allowing smokeless tobacco producers and sellers to advertise that their product is 98 percent safer than smoking.

Gretchen Wilson is no advocate for either of these positions–she’s a country music singer. But if Tennessee government officials want to turn her into some kind of tobacco role model, they ought to allow her to speak the truth. The hard-line anti-tobacco tune is not nearly so catchy.

Sean Parnell ([email protected]) is vice president-external affairs for The Heartland Institute.