“Tobacco” is still not a useful category

posted by Carl V Phillips

After two weeks and many meetings, I have a lot I want to debrief here and at EP-ology.  But right now I face a long flight and accumulated exhaustion, so a simple post to fill the gap — tempting fate by criticizing the US government just before arriving at immigration.

Starting to smoke has immediate effects on oxygen delivery and lung function, and some upper airway effects do not require much accumulated damage.  “Greatly”?  Well that is perhaps a bit strong, but it does not have a precise meaning, so just call it typical advertising hype.

However, smokeless tobacco use has no such immediate effects.  This is obviously true since it is not clear whether it has any serious health effects ever.  This is not to say that a child ought to be free to decide to use any of these products.  But since — as is the message of the original post — “children” (meaning c.17-year-olds, though the word choice is clearly intended to evoke images of 10-year-olds) are using tobacco products, there are numerous benefits from choosing smokeless rather than smoking.  Telling them that they might as well smoke is no better than directing that lie at adults.

In general, any use of the term “tobacco” to refer to an exposure is wrong.  Tobacco is the name of a plant.  It does not describe any particular exposure and indeed, there are several potentially health-affecting exposures to tobacco that are quite different from one another.  It is basically like saying “poplar trees instantly cause your health to decline greatly” — there are ways in which this is true, but it is pretty obviously a dumb thing to say without actually specifying the exposure.

Moreover, many (perhaps most) uses of the term “tobacco” to describe an exposure are not just wrong, but are lies.  They are intended to make the reader to falsely believe that (possibly true) statements about the effects of smoking apply equally to THR products.  The above statement is pretty clearly an example of that.  After all, it does not take any more effort to type “smoking” than “tobacco”.  (Yes, the term “smoking” is not technically limited to cigarette smoking.  But with absent any modifiers, that is the understood meaning, and that is a useful meaning.  That contrasts clearly with use of “tobacco”.)

It is a simple point, but no one is more in need of remedial lessons than the high school intern who writes the embarrassing @FDATobacco twitter feed.

2 responses to ““Tobacco” is still not a useful category

  1. ““children” (meaning c.17-year-olds, though the word choice is clearly intended to evoke images of 10-year-olds) ”

    Very true. I just posted on something along those lines at http://discussions.ktla.com/20/ktla2/ktla-flamming-cheetos-ban/10

    Your point about tobacco vs. smoking is well-made too, but I wouldn’t grace them with the benefit of the doubt of sloppiness. The use of tobacco rather than smoking is not due to a high-school intern: it’s due to the subsegments of the antismoking movement that are either (1) focused on “Big Tobacco” as the enemy in the same way US foreign policy used to see a Communist hiding behind every tree; or (2) coming from the Puritanical/Controlling type personalities that simply feel that anything people enjoy, get used to having, and then get irritated/angry when told they can’t enjoy it anymore — must be evil.

    For the latter type of people it wouldn’t matter if snus or vaping was found to be COMPLETELY harmless — it would still be a “bad” thing and “children” (up to, oh, say 25 or so) need to be “protected” from them. While it may be a bit of a simplification, there really IS a subgroup of people out there who suffer from ASDS (AntiSmokers Dysfunction Syndrome) and part of it spills over to anything at all that involves nicotine. See:


    Alcohol has always been big on their list of evils as well, but the bad experience of Prohibition has made them afraid to go after that too strongly yet. They’ve learned though: Step By Step, Mussolini’s Salami is having its way. I’m just wondering how long it will be before they get serious about caffeine and chocolate!

    Rest up and recover from your voyaging Carl! Looking forward to hearing the stories!

    – MJM

  2. Pingback: US government to require tobacco companies to correct “lies”, and to lie | Anti-THR Lie of the Day

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