UcanQuit2’s Smoking Gun

The military-focused website Ucanquit2.org is doing a fine impression of Col. Jessep from “A Few Good Men.” People, mostly military personnel and their families, who come to this website looking for accurate information about the risks of tobacco use, are treated as if they can’t handle the truth. UcanQuit2’s rigid philosophy is laid bare by the website’s strapline: “Quit Tobacco.” Contained in these two words is their absolutist position: All tobacco use is bad, and there is only the one option. There is no acknowledgment of tobacco harm reduction. Nary a hint that some forms of tobacco, like smokeless tobacco, are far less risky than smoking. Nor that a smoker who has switched exclusively to smokeless tobacco has eliminated the health risks of smoking in exchange for the dramatically lower risks of using smokeless tobacco.

UcanQuit2’s attitude is scarcely different from the hatchet-wielding saloon vandal, Carrie Nation. She thought alcohol was the problem, not the way it is consumed. UcanQuit2 thinks tobacco is the problem, not the way it is consumed. Make no mistake: UcanQuit2 is staking out an extremist position, and like all extremism, it tolerates no compromise about its singular goal, and selectively arrays only specific facts and claims to accomplish it. In other words, extremists with extreme goals must use extreme means to encourage others toward that extreme goal.

Over the past few weeks several people have taken advantage of UcanQuit2’s “live chat” feature to ask some basic questions of “tobacco cessation coaches” about tobacco use. The transcripts of these chats were forwarded to CASAA for review. David Sweanor, Brad Rodu, and Sally Satel have reported in more detail on their chat sessions here and here and here. From an inspection of these transcripts, two things became abundantly clear. 1) UcanQuit2 wants nothing short of everyone to quit tobacco in all its forms, and 2) UcanQuit2 will say anything, no matter how false or outrageous, to convince people to do so. What follows are key statements and exchanges that illustrate these two points. Tobacco cessation coaches’ statements and exchanges with visitors are in bold italic.

“Chewers are 50 times more likely than nonusers to get cancer of the cheek, gums, and inner surface of the lips.”

This hoary canard has been around since the 1980s. It’s based on a single study on a rare form of cancer found in a population of southern women, each of whom used a rare form of dry snuff, and had done so for over 50 years. This result has nothing to do whatsoever with the chewing tobacco and moist snuff that are by far the most common forms of smokeless tobacco in use today. Brad Rodu has completely debunked this myth here. Carl Phillips conducts a scientific autopsy of this idea here.

“Long-term [smokeless tobacco] users have a 50% greater risk of developing oral cancers than non-users.”

That this claim, along with the “50 times” claim above, appears on the same website and in the same chat transcripts is damning evidence that those at UcanQuit2 are not interested in citing scientific findings honestly. Apparently no one managed to spot that the first estimate is 100 times greater than the second. Which estimate is approximately correct? It turns out to be neither, as Brad Rodu explains.

“Oral tobacco contains at least 28 chemicals known to cause cancer (carcinogens). The most harmful of these are tobacco-specific nitrosamines, which are known to cause lung cancer.”

This sounds scary until you realize that nearly everything around us contains carcinogens at some measurable level. For example, coffee contains 21 carcinogens. That fact alone tells us nothing about the health risks of a particular product. What matters is the level of carcinogens present and the relationship of this level to causing disease. This claim, common to many anti-tobacco websites, simply glosses over this important follow-up analysis. If they hadn’t, they would have to report that there is no research clearly identifying any specific chemical (like nitrosamines) with a definitive link to any particular cancer (like lung cancer) in humans. UcanQuit2 is telling its visitors the intellectual equivalent that apples contain arsenic (they do), knowing the visitor will likely make a false assumption of significant risk from this out-of-context fact.   

“A: [from chewing tobacco] you can also get mouth cancer throat, and many others, yes you are still putting the toxins into your body.

Q: As bad as smoking?

A: Yes as bad and possibly worse.”

This is the full expression of UcanQuit2’s extremism writ large. If you are dogmatically against all tobacco use, then you have to claim all tobacco use poses high risks. In truth, there simply is no equivalence of risk between cigarette smoking and smokeless tobacco use. Smoking is approximately 100 times more risky. But to imply that smokeless tobacco use could possibly be worse than smoking is an egregious and dangerous lie that nudges people away from the far less risky option. It’s almost as if UcanQuit2 believes that if you cannot quit using tobacco, then they’d prefer you use the most dangerous form.

“Smokeless tobacco would be less likely [than smoking] to give you lung cancer.”

Given that the association between smokeless tobacco use and lung cancer is virtually zero, that would make eating grilled asparagus, drinking orange juice, or chewing gum also less likely to give you lung cancer compared to smoking. Mentioning smokeless tobacco in the same sentence with lung cancer, as if the risk is even measurable, is using a trivially true statement in an effort to mislead.

“Q: Do you mean that [Polonium 210; Uranium 235; Fiberglass and Sand] are added to dip and chew?

A: Yes they are.”

Finally, UcanQuit2 resorts to the absurd to sell their position. Polonium 210 and Uranium 235 are found throughout the earth, and finding them, in vanishingly small quantities, in smokeless tobacco is no surprise. The idea that manufacturers of smokeless tobacco gather and add these substances to products is simply laughable. Likewise the addition of fiberglass and sand, because, well, if one understood how smokeless tobacco works, it would be obvious that doing so serves no rational purpose.

UcanQuit2 is a fount of misleading, inflammatory, and outright false information when it comes to smokeless tobacco. It has few peers in its single-minded goal of convincing people to quit tobacco in all forms by any tactic necessary, no matter how dishonest. According to Tom Miller, the Attorney General of Iowa, if websites like UcanQuit2 were a business selling their information and advice, they would be guilty of consumer fraud.

It is quite unfortunate that service men and women, who put their lives on the line in foreign lands, should find their lives threatened here at home by ideologues pushing bad information to serve an absolutist goal to eradicate tobacco use. Our military personnel and their families deserve far better than this. They deserve to know the truth. Not only can they handle it; their lives depend on it.