How Dangerous is Swedish Snus? Don’t Ask The New York Times

Published December 3, 2014

The New York Times has published (here) a reasonably accurate portrayal of the Swedish snus experience that I have chronicled for over a decade (here,  here, and here). Reporters Matt Richtel and David Jolly examined Swedish Match’s FDA application to remove the federally mandated mouth cancer and not-safe-alternative warnings from snus products. I have discussed this landmark filing previously (here). 

In a companion piece (here) the paper tried to answer two important questions about snus and mouth cancer: “How accurate is the current warning? How dangerous is Swedish snus?” 

Despite a wealth of available information, the Times unfortunately failed to nail the answers, even after acknowledging that “Many studies have been done on the question (sic),…” but fretting that “…but as in many fields that involve complex questions and human subjects, the research is imperfect.” 

How is the research imperfect?  “For instance, some research concluding virtually no oral cancer risk from snus was funded by Swedish Match itself.”  The Times fell back on the old canard – the funder influenced the finding, despite total disclosure and high-quality peer review.  The paper failed to note that numerous studies, regardless of funding, show “virtually no oral cancer risk” for Swedish snus and American chew and dip.

The Times asked Kristin L. Sainani, a Stanford epidemiologist not involved in tobacco research, to examine the science.  She was remarkably indecisive:   “‘The weight of the evidence suggests a small increase’ in the risk of oral cancer with snus.  In Sweden, users of Swedish snus see virtually no increase in the rates of lip and oral cancer.”  In the end she made the correct call: virtually no increase. 

Dr. Sainani attempted to provide an anti-snus slant using double negatives: she said that “it is inconsistent with the evidence” to suggest that there is “absolutely no harm to an individual” from snus.  In essence, she repeated the no-win argument that snus can’t be proven absolutely safe.  That’s an irrational standard that many common foods couldn’t meet.

Dr. Sainani was asked by the Times to resolve the mouth cancer question, yet she is quoted on an entirely different matter: “In fact, she said, Swedish snus users face a doubling of risk of pancreatic cancer…”  It appears that Dr. Sainani exclusively used a 2008 review by Boffetta et al., which has been exposed as relying on cherry picked data (here). 

Is a snus pancreas cancer risk real?  No.  Five years ago I detailed how Boffetta fabricated the risk in 2008 (here), and, in 2011, Boffetta acknowledged that his earlier finding was wrong (here).  Sainani would have discovered this if she had compared the faulty Boffetta analysis with the most authoritative and comprehensive meta-analysis by Peter Lee and Jan Hamling (here), which found no pancreas cancer risk, in addition to no mouth cancer risk.

The Times article ended with Dr. Deborah Winn, deputy director of the division of cancer control at the National Cancer Institute.  Readers of this blog know that Dr. Winn launched the smokeless tobacco mouth cancer scare in 1981 (here and here). While she is the NCI’s top authority on smokeless tobacco and cancer, she demonstrated an appalling disregard of facts in a 2010 congressional hearing (here).  In the Times article, her obfuscation continued:

“[Winn] considered Swedish snus to be ‘a form of smokeless tobacco,’ which, in general, she said, is generally ‘linked to mouth cancer…Swedish snus in the past has given you cancer, and at the current low levels, I don’t know,’ she said. ‘There could be some risk there.'”

The one data point Winn provided to the Times is false. “She said studies done in the 1990s showed that users of Swedish snus in the 1970s faced a twofold increase in the risk of oral cancer.” There were two studies of Swedish snus and mouth cancer published in 1998.  They concluded:

  1. “[Snus] was not found to be a risk factor for oral cancer in our study.” (here)
  2. “No increased risk [for head and neck cancer, including oral cancer] was found for the use of Swedish [snus].” (here)

The Times and their quoted experts did a major disservice to their audience; they failed to report the simple truth, that mouth cancer risk for Swedish snus is next to nil.

[Originally published at Tobacco Truth]