New study shows that smokers are misled by erroneous information

by Carl V. Phillips

Readers interested in the topic may have already seen the headlines (dutifully reprinted from the press release by lazy news outlets), “Smokers believe ‘silver’, ‘gold’ and ‘slim’ cigarettes are less harmful”.  Of course, that belief seems quite likely to be true, and so is not what I am referring to in the headline here.  What the study shows that smokers are clearly intentionally misled about is something much more important that the authors buried (it did not appear in the abstract and I am shocked that some impulse toward honest reporting, perhaps left over from their education or previous careers, caused them to mention it in the press release):

Smokers in the study also revealed false beliefs that … nicotine is responsible for most of the cancer caused by cigarettes.

The apparent goal of this study was to provide an excuse for further regulation of packaging because it sends signals about which brands are slightly less hazardous.  The authors practically declare that they were setting out to do this.

It is true that the differences in risks among existing cigarettes are small enough that they have not been measured.  In part this is for lack of trying, since an Official Myth of anti-tobacco is that all cigarettes pose exactly the same risk, which is obvious absurd.  This is so obviously absurd that I would be amazed that they would make such a ridiculous claim, let alone get away with it, if I were not aware of what other claims they make and get away with.  Of course different cigarettes pose different risks – the exposures differ a bit and so the outcomes are going to differ a bit.  Cigarettes differ in their concentrations of the toxins that activists/researchers (sometimes the same ones who like to insist there is no difference) present as sources of the harm, after all.  Indeed, the difference between the risks across major cigarette brands is undoubtedly bigger than the difference between using smokeless tobacco or e-cigarettes and being nicotine abstinent, a difference that the anti-tobacco extremists pretend is huge.

As for which brands are slightly more or less harmful, we do not know for certain, but the consumers’ guesses – that low tar and filters are better – seem like where the smart money should be.  Consider the fact that some jurisdictions limit the tar content, and thus the regulators seem to agree.  It is not clear from what was reported exactly how the survey questions about comparative risk were asked.  I suspect the phrasing implied “is there any difference in risk whatsoever” rather than “is there a big enough difference that smoking the less harmful ones is enough better for you that you should not worry about the risks if you smoke them”.  Of course, the authors are playing the activist role – the current fashion in activism being all about the latest doomed effort to discourage smoking through gimmicks, taking away the pretty colors on the package that are obviously the reason that people smoke.  The authors are implying that the survey respondents were answering the second of those comparison statements, whereas I suspect they believed themselves to be answering the first of them.  That is, they were giving the undoubtedly correct answer (that there are differences) and the probably correct answer (that the differences favor the “light” brands) rather than the Official Propaganda answer that there is absolutely no difference.

For shame!  We must immediately sack the Minister of Truth and investigate what has gone wrong.

But the really dangerous misinformation this study reminded us of (though we already knew it, since dozens of studies including our own have shown it) is that most smokers think that the nicotine is a, or even the, major cause of health risk from smoking.  This, of course, is a great victory for the Ministry of Truth-style anti-tobacco extremists, since it helps make sure that smokers keep dying until they quit, minimizing the chance that they save their lives by switching to a low-risk alternative.  Smokers have been intentionally convinced that “tobacco” and nicotine are the sources of their risk, not smoking itself, and this convinces them that they might as well smoke rather than switch products.  Put another way, the lies about all nicotine products posing the same risks are not limited to the relatively harmless lie that all cigarettes are exactly the same (even though they undoubtedly differ in risk by several percent, perhaps even 10%), but include the immensely harmful lie that low-risk nicotine products pose the same risk as smoking (even though this is wrong by about 99%).

So, to slightly rewrite part of the last paragraph of their press release and conclusions of their abstract, respectively:

Dr. ——, one of the researchers on the study, says that the study provides evidence for further regulation. “The findings highlight the deceptive potential of information targeted primarily at young people who might be good candidates for saving their lives by product switching.”

Despite current prohibitions on government-sponsored misleading statements, smokers in western countries continue to falsely believe that no nicotine products are less harmful than others. These beliefs are associated with descriptive words and elements of package design that have yet to be prohibited.

See if you can guess which of those words I added without peeking at the original.  It is fewer than you might think.

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  • Michael J. McFadden  On April 15, 2011 at 2:14 am

    “Indeed, the difference between the risks across major cigarette brands is undoubtedly bigger than the difference between using smokeless tobacco or e-cigarettes and being nicotine abstinent, a difference that the anti-tobacco extremists pretend is huge.”

    Very well put and a VERY excellent point Carl!

    If the TC folks weren’t such religious zealots maybe they’d try taking a few puffs from a Carlton Ultra sometime and compare the experience with taking a few puffs from a Marlboro Red or a Camel nonfilter. Perhaps they might begin to get a bit of a sense of the difference between the two.

    Of course people switching to a “light” cigarette from a regular one will tend to change their smoking habits to inhale roughly the same amount of nicotine. Too bad Big T isn’t allowed to provide Carlton type cigarettes with the nicotine of the Camels, eh? That might just be a bit too healthy or something I guess.

    But for newer smokers whose initial experiences with smoking are the very light cigarettes I doubt the same mechanism comes into play as strongly. And if you smoke a Carlton Ultra in the same way that you might have smoked Camel nonfilters it’s at least fairly likely that any health risk involved would be reduced although there’s always some argument to be made that the various additives in the light cigarettes might be more harmful themselves.

    I’ve always thought it to be sadly comical that BigT gets hit in the courtroom for promoting light cigarettes while you had governments pushing the idea of taxing them at a lower rate in order to promote their use (I think that was at least strongly proposed in the UK in the 1990s, although I’m not sure it ever translated to reality.)

    Unfortunately, with the sacking of Dr. Gio Gori and the attempts to produce safer cigarettes in the 1980s the entire concept was largely lost and we’ll probably never know just how many lives might have been saved if those programs had gone on at reasonable levels of funding. The e-cigarette is sort of the ultimate grandchild of that movement — in a sense skipping a generation — by moving from “safer” cigarettes to what are probably, in any real sense of the word, actually completely “safe” cigarettes in the traditionally accepted medical sense of the concept.

    I think the Antismokers performed a very serious disservice to smokers in forcing an atmosphere where very low “tar” cigarettes with reasonably enjoyable levels of nicotine might have been widely marketed and smoked over the last 20 years or so. And now they’re following the same pattern with their resistance against the e-cigs.

    Michael J. McFadden
    Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains”


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