• May 22, 2024

Dispelling Myths

 Dispelling Myths

Photo: Elena Milevska

Photo: Elena Milevska

A disturbingly larges share of doctors believe that nicotine causes smoking-related diseases.

By George Gay

For a long time, people involved in tobacco harm reduction (THR) have bemoaned the fact that many doctors wrongly believe that consuming nicotine causes smoking-related diseases. Clearly, the concern as far as THR advocates are concerned is that, logically, these doctors are unlikely to recommend that smokers transition from combustible cigarettes to other forms of nicotine delivery, such as those afforded by electronic cigarettes, nicotine pouches and, one must assume, even nicotine patches.

This concern was highlighted in a July 20 press note issued on behalf of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW), which said that a survey of more than 15,000 physicians in 11 countries had found, in part, that 77 percent of doctors mistakenly believed nicotine caused lung cancer, and 78 percent mistakenly believed it caused atherosclerosis. The Doctors’ Survey was carried out online by Sermo with doctors based in China, Germany, Greece, India, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, South Africa, the U.K. and the U.S.

“It is imperative that doctors get the proper training to learn the facts about nicotine and tobacco harm reduction options that can help their smoking patients quit,” Muhammad Ahmed, the FSFW’s director of health and science research, was quoted in the press note as saying. “With more than 7 million smokers dying annually from smoking-related diseases worldwide, many lives can be saved if doctors become more knowledgeable about the cessation tools available.”

Now, the FSFW is inviting researchers to submit (contact support@smokefreeworld.org) proposals to further analyze the Doctors’ Survey findings and propose programs to help improve doctors’ “fluency about smoking cessation and tobacco harm reduction.”

The report of the Doctors’ Survey has much to recommend it, and I would urge anybody interested in THR to read it. One of its strengths, I would suggest, is that it is a practical attempt to help address the chronic problems associated with doctors being generally ill-informed about nicotine. And it is to be hoped that this practical emphasis continues as researchers further analyze the survey’s findings and propose remedial actions. It would be unfortunate if there were a focus on analysis that led to academic drift. We should not lose sight of the fact that this is about helping smokers, not about helping indigent academics—the words “more research is needed” should be proscribed.

Primary Sources

While generally supporting this initiative, I have a few concerns and questions about some of the issues that the survey raises. There is what looks like an unnecessary reference to IQOS in one of the report’s tables, something of an “own goal” I would have thought, given that the FSFW comes under attack for the source of its funding, notwithstanding such attacks might be unwarranted and unfair.

And I hope that whatever comes out of the proposals for improving doctors’ “fluency about smoking cessation and tobacco harm reduction,” it clears up a couple of questions. Doctors in Japan are said in the survey report to believe mistakenly that “light” cigarettes are less harmful than other cigarettes, but what are doctors working in the EU to make of this “mistake” when the authorities there impose a limit on deliveries? Is it out of malice or a sense of a lightness of being that the authorities in the EU allow only the sale of “lighter” cigarettes? And a related question would ask if anybody knows whether there is any point in doctors recommending smokers cut their consumption. Does anybody know if the risks of smoking are proportionate to consumption levels—in respect of delivery levels per stick and/or by daily stick consumption?

More importantly, the question arises as to whether we know if doctors are the primary source of the information on smoking and quitting that people absorb and act upon. If so, the direction of the FSFW’s travel seems correct and important. If not, it would seem irrational to spend a lot of time and money trying to improve the training of doctors in this area, especially given that if they haven’t figured out the role of nicotine by now, it is possibly going to take a lot of effort to get through to them. I certainly cannot see how the doctor route could be universally applicable given that many governments oppose at least some aspects of THR, and many health services are at least partly state institutions.

A cursory internet search indicated that, in the U.K., patients had on average 8.7 consultations with general practitioners during 2018–2019, 3.3 of them face-to-face. Compare that with the uncountable number of times these same people would have gawped at their mobile phones. So, in a country such as the U.K., where the government is convinced of the effectiveness of THR, it would perhaps be better for it to use social media to get messages across. I am not advocating the usual sort of official messages that comprise little more than a tissue of lies but messages simply about the relative safety of nicotine as the government sees it. Otherwise, messages could be included, for instance, on the shirts of professional sorts of people, on public transport and on public buildings. And given the increasingly authoritarian nature of the U.K. government, perhaps it might consider the compulsory tattooing of people with these important messages.

Another problem was brought to light when Ahmed said that it was imperative for doctors to receive the proper training to learn the facts about nicotine and tobacco harm reduction options that can help their smoking patients quit. The obvious questions arise as to who gets to decide what amounts to proper training and what the facts are in a postmodern world. The facts, for example, as they apply to the use of THR principles and as they are decreed by the authorities in India and the U.K., are likely to be very different.

The World Health Organization, though paying lip service to THR, opposes the shift from inhaling tar and nicotine to inhaling just nicotine. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, whose influence stretches beyond the U.S., while also paying lip service to THR, has done much to discourage smokers making such a shift. In fact, the FDA, at the same time, has de facto promoted the smoking of tar-delivering, low-nicotine combustible cigarettes. What is a trainee doctor to make of such policies—such implied facts?

Of course, such issues will not have escaped the attention of those behind this initiative, but it concerns me that any attempt at trying to resolve them, either universally or on a state-by-state basis, will simply lead to delays in reaching THR objectives. The vaping advisory industry, in all its guises, should not be seen as being more important than the vaping industry.

Evaluating the Curriculum

But I have a bigger concern. The ad nauseam message coming from governments and organizations such as the WHO and the FDA is that “[c]igarette smoking remains the leading cause of preventable disease, disability and death ….” In fact, that quote comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and refers to the U.S.

At the same time, the message coming from the Doctors’ Survey is that most doctors are ill-informed about issues surrounding smoking and nicotine consumption because they have received little or no training on smoking cessation. “This may reflect the cursory training they’ve received in smoking and harm,” is a quote from the survey referring to doctors in Italy.

Let me paraphrase these two positions:

  1. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease, disability and death.
  2. Most doctors receive only cursory training in respect of the leading cause of preventable disease, disability and death.

It seems I am being asked to believe that doctors, charged, in part, with helping people avoid sickness, are not being properly trained in respect of the most threatening health concern of all. How can I reconcile these two positions or overcome the apparent state of insanity they describe? I could assume, I suppose, that those who devise the curriculums at the base of doctor training courses are not in full control of their mental faculties, that they insist doctors should, when you visit them, be able to rattle off the names of the 206 bones in your body but not be able to give you sound advice on the leading cause of preventable disease, disability and death. On the whole, I find such an explanation unlikely given that we are talking about the curriculum advisers in 11 countries. They cannot all have taken leave of their senses.

So, I am left with the conclusion that either No. 1 or No. 2 above must be wrong, and I am leaning toward the idea that it is No. 1 that is wrong. But before I expand on this idea, I need to make three points. Firstly, I am not saying cigarette smoking is anything but hugely harmful. I think it stands to reason that inhaling anything but pure air is not a good idea and is likely to cause you harm. Secondly, I am not saying cigarette smoking was never the leading cause of preventable disease, disability and death. Thirdly, I have read in recent times about three things reported to be the leading cause of early deaths in humans: tobacco smoking, outdoor pollution and poor diet.

Above, I quote Ahmed as saying more than 7 million smokers die annually from smoking-related diseases worldwide. But what does this mean? It is arguably a completely open-ended figure, one that might or might not approach or even surpass the WHO’s 8 million. OK, you could argue the “more than 7 million” is just a throwaway, ballpark figure aimed at underlining the severity of this issue, but surely it is necessary to have more than a ballpark figure before we start trying to build a sturdy quit-smoking edifice?

Recently, The Guardian newspaper’s health editor, Andrew Gregory, made the point that long-term exposure to air pollution is associated with chronic conditions such as heart disease, asthma and lung cancer.

Clearly, separating many cigarette-smoking deaths from pollution-related deaths must be difficult, if not impossible, so I find it odd that health professionals are willing to accept and work on the basis of what seem to be highly dubious smoking-related-disease figures. Why are health professionals so keen on expending huge amounts of effort and money addressing what they blindly accept to be the problems caused by smoking, which, by the way, are likely decreasing and which individuals can address for themselves, rather than expend that effort and money addressing the much bigger and growing health problem posed by pollution, over which individuals have next to no control and which are going to get worse as the population of the world approaches 10 billion and becomes even more concentrated in megacities? It is time to ask “cui bono” and “cui malo”?