Friday, March 2, 2012

Is drunk driving safer than smoke-free tobacco?

"There is no safe form of driving. Driving sober is not a safe alternative to driving drunk."

Imagine if that was the message being given to the public in an effort to reduce traffic fatalities. Imagine that the government required car manufacturers to place signs in their cars stating that "driving this vehicle while sober is not a safe alternative to driving while intoxicated." Imagine the public outrage that would occur if those tasked with protecting the public were to make that sort of statement or make such requirements! It would technically be the truth, but would anyone seriously view that as a responsible and effective message?

One sign tells the truth responsibly. 
The other - not so much.
There really is no safe way to drive - if you are talking about being 100% safe. Every time one gets behind the wheel of a car, or even rides in a car, there are all types of risks involved. The roads may be slippery, another driver may be texting, someone else may be drunk, an inattentive driver may run a red light - any number of things could happen. There is just no way to make driving 100% safe.

Fortunately, society has recognized that there are ways to reduce those risks and increase the odds that drivers will reach their destination safely. There are traffic lights, lane dividers, speed restrictions and laws against drunk or distracted driving to decrease the odds of an accident and seat belts, air bags and other devices to decrease the risks of death should an accident occur.

So, while we know that there is no 100% safe way to drive, we certainly wouldn't allow public officials to send the message that people may as well drive drunk - that would be irresponsible and counter-productive to the goal of reducing driving fatalities. It is clear to everyone that while driving sober still has some low risks, driving drunk is far more dangerous.

Yet, the government and public health officials routinely tell people that "there is no safe form of tobacco" and that "smoke-free tobacco products are not a safe alternative to smoking," even though research shows unequivocally that smoke-free tobacco use is far less risky. They also require tobacco companies to put warnings on their smoke-free products that they are "not a safe alternative to smoking," thereby discouraging smokers from switching. This is in spite of the fact that they know that smoke-free products do not have the risk of lung diseases, half to less than one-quarter the risk of oral cancers and the risks of heart and cardiovascular disease are proving to be slim to none with some smoke-free products. It should be made clear to everyone that while smoke-free tobacco still has some low risks, exposure to tobacco smoke is far more dangerous.

With 23% of US adults using tobacco products, approximately 13% of them being smoke-free only tobacco users, public officials and public health organizations are essentially telling these people that they may as well smoke or keep smoking. This is ethically no better than telling people that they may as well drive drunk because driving sober is no guarantee they won't have an accident. We would never dream of allowing our representatives to send that message about driving to the public and we shouldn't allow them to send a similar message about tobacco risks. 

According to MADD, efforts to educate the public - that not driving while drunk significantly decreased their risks of a fatal accident - have saved over 300,000 lives in the past 25 years. The CDC states that more deaths are caused each year by [smoking] than by all deaths from human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides, and murders combined. Imagine how many lives would have been saved over the past 25 years if people had known that there were much safer tobacco alternatives. The public should be outraged. 

The time is long overdue to stop sending the wrong message - even if it is technically "the truth."


  1. I thought so too (plus one'd it) although I thought the risk of oral cancer from alternative like Snus were even lower.

  2. It is, James, but it's rather difficult to write a SHORT commentary without having to lump the various sorts of smoke-free alternative stats together and/or using an "average" of the varied risk reports rather than listing the different risks of each product individually. Thanks for the +1! :)

  3. You have outdone yourself, Kristin! This should be required reading for every public health official and every tobacco/nicotine researcher.

  4. Excellent work Kristin, as always.

  5. I completely agree with everything said here, but apparently it is only important if people are hurting others. So as much as I think it would be a great idea to educate the public about alternatives, I don't think it will every happen because people are only hurting themselves.

  6. Drunk driving is extremely dangerous and should never be done.

  7. We should really watch out on the road either way. Though we should be extra wary of DUI drivers. True, reckless driving doesn't always mean the driver is drunk or high, but what intoxication does is increase its likelihood, since that entails the mangling of motor functions. So its a risk. And an open road is really an inadvisable place for gamble, especially since that would be a traffic of lives and people, and therfore has a lot at stake. We ought to keep things on the safe side as much as possible.

    Kim Hunter