Wednesday, September 22, 2010

FDA Can’t Handle the Truth

Recently the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) invited the public to submit suggestions to the Center for Tobacco Products for educational resources to be added to the training program for Tobacco Retailers.

I submitted the following suggestion on September 19, 2010.

Relative Risks

Provide printed information comparing risk of smoking-related diseases from cigarette smoke to reduced risk from switching to smokeless products.

After I submitted the suggestion, the following feedback was displayed: “Your suggestion is awaiting moderator approval.”

OK, it’s understandable that the FDA would want to make sure that off-topic or off-color suggestions are weeded out before displaying them to the rest of the word. Since my suggestion was submitted over the weekend, I waited until Monday to see my suggestion displayed so that others could vote upon it.

Returning to my specific suggestion at I saw that the “Awaiting moderator approval” message was still displayed.

I noticed the following message on the page.

PLEASE NOTE: To review our comment policy, visit We will only post on-topic comments on communication tool suggestions for retailers.

I clicked the link to determine whether the suggestion I submitted met the FDA guidelines, which read as follows:

FDA Center for Tobacco Product’s Tobacco Ideas Web site allows and encourages public comments and votes. We expect that participants will treat each other with respect and abide by the Terms of Service. All comments posted to the Web site will be reviewed and approved by the administrator before posting. We will not allow comments that contain vulgar or profane language; personal attacks of any kind; or offensive terms that target specific ethnic, religious or racial groups. We will not allow comments that are clearly off topic, spam, or that promote services or endorsement of any financial, commercial or non-governmental agency. The appearance of comments and external links on this site does not constitute official endorsement on behalf of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Was my suggestion “off topic”? I found the following description of the program for which the FDA was seeking suggestions. ( )

Break the Chain is FDA's new campaign to educate retailers and raise awareness about tobacco product regulations designed to protect kids from the dangers of tobacco use and its negative health impacts.

Medical research shows that 98-99% of the negative health impacts of tobacco use are caused by inhaling tobacco smoke. Tobacco retailers probably don’t know this. Like the rest of the American public, they have been misled into believing that the health risks of smokeless tobacco products are equal to the health risks of smoking. One of the government-required warning messages on smokeless products, “This product is not a safe alternative to smoking,” is interpreted by 85% of the public as “This product is no safer than smoking.”

Allowing the public to believe “you might as well smoke” perpetuates the worst of the negative health impacts of tobacco use. What if, however, smokers were provided with truthful information about relative risks so that they could make informed decisions?

In Sweden, providing the public with truthful information about the reduced health risks of using low-nitrosamine “snus” (a type of moist snuff) has led to Sweden enjoying the lowest smoking rates of any country in Europe. One study surveyed 6752 adult Swedes on tobacco use. They found that those who used snus were significantly less likely to start smoking. Among male smokers who later began using snus, 88% ceased daily smoking completely. Women using snus were significantly more likely to be able to stop smoking than those using nicotine patches or gum. "The main lesson of this study is that significant sections of the public would select a less harmful high-nicotine smokeless product over cigarettes and use it long term in place of smoking."
Ramstrom (2006) Role of snus in initiation and cessation of tobacco smoking in Sweden. Tobacco Control 2006;15:210-214.

But what effect does switching to Swedish snus have on health? Researchers reviewed the literature to identify studies that provided quantitative risk estimates associated with Swedish snus and cigarette smoking in a single population.

“Seven studies were identified that addressed eight health outcomes. Although few in number, these seven studies do provide quantitative evidence that, for certain health outcomes, the health risks associated with snus are lower than those associated with smoking. Specifically, this is true for lung cancer (based on one study), for oral cancer (based on one study), for gastric cancer (based on one study), for cardiovascular disease (based on three of four studies), and for all-cause mortality (based on one study).”
Roth (2005) Health risks of smoking compared to Swedish snus. Inhalation Toxicology. 2005 Dec 1;17(13):741-8.

More recently, products have been bought to market that provide the look and feel of smoking without exposing the user or bystanders to the dangerous products of combustion. Instead of focusing on the huge potential of electronic cigarettes to reduce smoking-related disease, the FDA has chosen instead to exaggerate the importance of miniscule, harmless quantities of nitrosamines and utilize propaganda techniques to mislead the public into believing the products present "acute health risks."

So how could providing truthful information on relative risks of tobacco products to retailers protect kids from negative health impacts of tobacco use? Wouldn’t it lead to increased use of tobacco, resulting in increased negative health impacts?

If retailers were provided with documentation that switching to smokeless products reduces health risks, and if retailers informed smokers of the truth, odds are good that some smokers--perhaps many smokers--would make the switch, as happened in Sweden. There would be fewer adult smokers providing a role-model of smoking as a grown-up activity. If kids did learn this well-guarded secret, they would be less likely to start with or to progress to the much more harmful activity of smoking.

Two full business days have passed, and my suggestion still has not been published. On second thought, what did I expect?

Given the latest slogan coming out of the tobacco control community, “There is no safe form of tobacco,” it is doubtful that the FDA will ever agree to provide truthful information to the public. Admitting that some forms of tobacco are less harmful than others would expose the big, fat dirty lies for what they are.

Millions of smokers whose lives could have been saved by switching to safer alternatives have died over the past two decades as a result of the government-led disinformation campaign. Withholding the truth and engaging in misdirection are forms of lying, make no mistake. These lies kill people.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Case of Legalized Extortion

I started to write this article in August, right after California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. announced a settlement with Sottera, the corporation that markets the NJOY electronic smoking alternatives. Unfortunately, I was sidetracked by more pressing issues, and I let the matter drop.

Recently, however, it became clear to me that this issue needs to be addressed when I read a forum entry that cited the settlement as proof that the company has been engaged in wrongdoing. The writer argued:
“Why would Sottera/NJOY settle/agree not to sell to minors and to discontinue advertising smoking cessation claims/health claims with the CA AG office (and pay $85,000 in fines) if they had not previously been caught doing so?”

I pointed out that a lawsuit constitutes an accusation, not legal proof, and that the most logical explanation for signing a settlement was that Sottera’s attorneys provided an estimate of what taking the case through the California court system would cost. The total was probably much higher than the $85,000 extorted by Brown. Were this the only legal battle Sottera faced, it might be worth while to go the distance. However, Sottera is engaged in a lengthy and costly legal battle with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the Federal court system.

And it is this legal battle at the Federal level that is at the core of Brown’s suit. Late in 2008, the FDA began seizing incoming shipments of electronic cigarettes as unapproved new drugs. Smoking Everywhere filed suit against the FDA, asking for an injunction against product seizures. Sottera, which had also had large shipments seized, joined the suit as an Intervenor Plaintiff.

Apparently piqued at the audacity of the two companies for suing the FDA, the director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) decided to take matters into his own hands. He sent a letter to all 50 Attorneys General of each state, asking them to take legal action against Smoking Everywhere and NJOY

California’s Brown and Oregon Attorney General John Kroger apparently saw a PR opportunity and filed suit against both companies. The filings repeated the unfounded accusations from the ASH letter. Neither Attorney General bothered to conduct any type of investigation regarding the truthfulness of the accusations.

Had either AG even bothered to visit the NJOY web site, they would have seen that visitors are asked to verify that they are of legal smoking age before proceeding. The accusation that the products are targeted to non-smoking minors is further belied by text on the package of replacement cartridges:

"NJOY products are intended for use by those of legal smoking age and older, not by nonsmokers or children, nursing or pregnant women, or persons with or at risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, or taking medicine for depression or asthma."

Nevertheless, the California Consent Judgment requires Sottera to promise not to market its products to minors. It should be noted that the Consent Judgment stipulates, “The Parties enter into this Consent Judgment without a trial. It does not constitute evidence of an admission by the Defendant regarding any issue of law or fact alleged in the Complaint.”

Bottom Line: Signing the Consent Agreement does not constitute an admission of guilt on the part of Sottera/NJOY.

Most of the other items stipulated in the Injunctive Relief section of the Consent Judgment involve Sottera promising to begin performing actions that it has been doing ever since the business started, or promising to stop doing things it never did in the first place.

“Defendant shall have and maintain a system for quality control of Covered Products to ensure that they are manufactured to appropriate specifications,” reads the Consent Judgment. “TESTED IN THE USA. GLOBALLY DISTRIBUTED. MADE IN CHINA,” reads the NJOY package text.

“Defendant shall not advertise Covered Products as smoking-cessation devices unless or until they have been approved by the Federal Food and Drug Administration as such under its authority to regulate drugs, devices, or tobacco products,” reads the Consent Judgment. “NJOY products are not a smoking cessation product and have not been tested as such,” reads the NJOY package text.

“Defendant shall not sell Covered Products containing vitamins or other substances intended to portray that using Covered Products will improve one’s health, without competent, reliable scientific evidence to support the implied health claim,” reads the Consent Judgment. This requirement is not too difficult for NJOY to implement, in view of the fact that the company has never sold cartridges containing anything other than propylene glycol, water, and flavoring, with optional nicotine.

Some of the provisions of the Settlement Agreement are downright absurd. The requirement, “Defendant shall not make claims about Covered Products having no tar without competent reliable scientific evidence to prove the claims,” illustrates ignorance of basic science. Numerous laboratories have tested the content of electronic cigarette vapor, but none has ever bothered to test for the presence of tar—for very good reason. Tar is created by the process of combustion. Nothing is burned in an electronic cigarette.

The most absurd requirement of all is “Defendant shall not make claims about Covered Products containing no tobacco without competent reliable scientific evidence to prove the claims.” It does not require a rocket scientist to look inside an electronic cigarette cartridge to verify that there is no tobacco present.

So what do you call it when the AG extracts a "fine" of $85,000 from a company that has committed no wrongdoing? Some would call that extortion. It adds insult to injury for the AG’s press release to malign the company by implying that wrongdoing has been committed in the past.