New York Times Editorial Board lies about smokeless tobacco labeling

by Carl V Phillips

The New York Times Editorial Board has come out against allowing the “warning” label changes that Swedish Match requested in their MRTP application. They probably did not set out to actively mislead their readers like, say, ANTZ “researchers” do. But when they summoned up all their expertise and experience as, um, reporters on politics and current events, somehow they got this bit of scientific analysis wrong. Shocking. Their lies appear to be the “claim to be expert on something you do not actually understand” type, though I suppose we cannot rule out that they were intentionally trying to mislead. This is combined with them clearly not having a clue about who to believe in this arena. (Hint: The industry tends to be almost impeccably honest and maximally knowledgeable when it comes to the science. Regulators fail on both those counts. And the vast majority of academic “researchers” in this area do not even try to be either honest or knowledgeable.)

Surprisingly, they start out by getting the most basic fact right.

A Swedish tobacco company’s petition to soften the warning labels on its smokeless chewing tobacco will force the Food and Drug Administration to decide whether a product that is less harmful than smoking tobacco should be allowed to market itself as a safer option.

They declare as simple fact the uncontroversial observation that smokeless tobacco is less harmful than smoking (although chewing the particular products under consideration would be a rather unusual behavior). This seems like kind of faint praise, like saying “they correctly identified the shape of the Earth.” But it is better than most newspapers writing about this topic. And before going on to criticize their conclusion, I will give them props for this. Various units of the U.S. government, the WHO, the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, et al. have been lying about this for years, so it is not entirely trivial to get it right.

The link is to their news story about the MRTP application, which is actually pretty solid, though it shows the NYT’s typical naive deference to the wrong people, such as their belief that “public health” people genuinely care about either the public or health. The reporters actually came remarkably close to pushing back against the (false) claim that Swedish Match products, or Swedish-style smokeless tobacco in general, are lower risk than American-style products to any measured, measurable, or important degree. Given that Swedish Match presumably planted the story and may have made that claim to them (note the “almost” in “almost impeccably honest”, above), it was good that they merely accurately reported the misperception without actually endorsing it, and perhaps even hinting at their recognition it was wrong:

For now, American chew is generally seen as more harmful than Swedish snus.

It is also notable that the news story, which apparently the editors read before expressing their uniformed opinion, credited Zeller and the FDA with appreciating the potential of harm reduction. The reality is that they are pursuing anti-THR policies, but that is indeed their rhetoric.

After providing some background, the NYT editorial continues:

The issue is whether modified warnings would encourage tobacco use in somewhat less toxic forms and if such a result would be better for public health. For now, there’s no strong evidence that a modified warning would help many individual users or benefit the population as a whole. Unless there is such evidence, a softer label might only lure more people into the nicotine market.

WTF? There is no evidence that lying less would benefit people (they claim), and therefore the label will lure nonusers? Do these people even read what they write? I realize they know nothing about science, but they are supposed to understand prose composition at least.

Of course, they are wrong about the science too. We have overwhelming evidence that many smokers will try an alternative upon learning that it is much lower risk. We know that millions of American smokers are willing to use smokeless tobacco (e.g., those who already do). We know that in Sweden, most male would-be smokers use snus instead. The only legitimate argument against the label change is that it does not do enough to effectively communicate how much lower risk the products are, compared to smoking.

An utterly illegitimate argument — as anyone with a modicum of understanding of science-based policy knows — is “we do not know exactly what will happen, given the particular policy change and the details of the world in which it will be implemented, and therefore we do not know what will happen.” That, of course, is an “argument” against ever making any policy ever (such as, say, putting inaccurate “warning” labels on the products in the first place). Anyone want to guess how often the NYT Editorial Board applies that standard when they are supporting a policy change?

[Swedish Match] says greater use of snus in Sweden since the 1970s has contributed significantly to reduced smoking rates and lower rates of tobacco-related diseases such as lung and oral cancer. But the causation is debatable, since Sweden was simultaneously cracking down on smoking through various bans, restrictions and public health campaigns.

Seriously? How credulous are these people? Regardless of how dishonest the people they are listening to are to claim this in the first place, anyone ought to be able to see how absurd this desperate rationalizing is. Sweden was simultaneously doing exactly what every other Western country was doing — and many have done to a much greater extent — and yet their smoking rate is the lowest anywhere. It is half that of their neighbors who implemented the same policies but banned snus. There is only one important difference among the policies, and it obviously explains the different outcome.

The danger is that snus might lead some nonsmokers and former smokers to take up the tobacco habit, and perhaps progress on to cigarette smoking, when abstention would be the safest approach.

Gee, I feel so much better knowing that the NYT Editorial Board has granted themselves authority over what constitutes legitimate free choice. For a bunch of people who seem so concerned with free speech, freedom to have an abortion, etc., they seem rather willing to take away freedom to choose to use tobacco. If upon learning that smokeless tobacco is lower risk — and not even knowing how low the risk really is, given that the proposed new label grossly understates the difference — someone chooses to use it, that would constitute a “danger”. Just like most people across the political spectra who pretend to advocate on behalf of freedom and the people, the NYT Editorial Board really believe in freedom to choose only what they personally would choose.

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4 responses to “New York Times Editorial Board lies about smokeless tobacco labeling

  1. I’m looking for a direct response to an article McKee always refrences to in order to deny snus as a causative factor in Sweden’s low smoking rates.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20435619

    Thanks in advance.

    • Carl V Phillips

      I am not sure what more to say than the few words I included in the post: There is only one substantial difference between Sweden and its EU neighbors in terms of anti-smoking policies. All the other differences are trivial and vary far less than the differences among the various other countries with 20% or 25% or 30% smoking prevalence. There is no evidence that those measures have other than a trivial effect. Sweden has fewer anti-tobacco forces in place than several other countries which have higher smoking prevalence. Anyone who pretends not to see this is simply saying the Earth is flat.

  2. Did they actually say that snus might induce “former smokers” to “take up the tobacco habit”? This must be some kind of parody editorial.

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