Mayo Clinic progresses from blatantly wrong to deeply misleading

Some trusted health institutions seem unable to cope with the reality of a huge variation in risk between different tobacco […]


Some trusted health institutions seem unable to cope with the reality of a huge variation in risk between different tobacco products – notably combustible versus non-combustible. If you were paying attention, you may have noticed a subtle change in the Mayo Clinic’s approach to smokeless tobacco last week.

On 1st April 2016, its advice on smokeless tobacco looked like this. See Wayback Machine archive – and in Google’s cache at the time. “Chewing tobacco: Not safer than cigarettes

Cached Mayo Clinic page from 1st April 2016

By 2nd April 2016, it had changed to this. “Chewing tobacco: Not a safe product“.

Mayo Clinic screen grab 2 April 2016

What could have prompted such an important change in advice from the Mayo Clinic? Those headlines are really quite different.

Perhaps it was this?

1st April 2016. Lynn Kozlowski and David Sweanor paper on the ethics of placing information on the relative risks of different nicotine products “in quarantine” – i.e. hiding the truth from people in order to affect their choices and behaviours, in which they round on Mayo Clinic for its continuing deceptive headline.

Kozlowski LT, Sweanor DS. Withholding differential risk information on legal consumer nicotine/tobacco products: The public health ethics of health information quarantines. Int J Drug Policy 2016 [link]

Kozlowski and Sweanor

Progress of a grudging and dishonest nature

It is disappointing that we have to count as ‘progress’ the Mayo Clinic’s movement from an outright falsehood to being merely deeply misleading. Of course, it is hard to prove anything is ‘safe’ in absolute terms.  Even if the tobacco and nicotine are completely benign, it is probably a choking hazard of some sort. So no-one ought to claim smokeless tobacco is perfectly safe and no-one really does. But it is universally understood in the tobacco and health field that smokeless tobacco products are much less risky than smoking.

However, saying something is not a safe product tells the consumer next to nothing of value and has the obvious potential to mislead – which is possibly its purpose, given what this wording has just replaced.  “Not a safe product” for example, can mean any of the following things in relative terms:

  • 3% safer than cigarettes
  • 25% safer than cigarettes
  • 54% safer than cigarettes
  • 77% safer than cigarettes
  • 98% safer than cigarettes

No-one does know or can know the exact answer and there will be differences between products, but only one of these is even approximately right – the last one. Smokeless tobaccos, even in the riskiest forms available in the United States, simply do not and cannot create the same range of the big killers – lung cancer, respiratory disease or cardiovascular disease – as cigarettes.

And the Mayo Clinic has form…. back in 2013, it was guilty of similar dissembling over e-cigarettes. See Mike Siegel: Even the Mayo Clinic is Spreading Lies About Electronic Cigarettes; What is the Anti-Smoking Movement Coming To?  “The manufacturers claim that e-cigarettes are a safe alternative to tobacco cigarettes.” They didn’t then and they don’t now.

What the Mayo Clinic should do now

1. Own up properly and apologise

It should acknowledge that it has made this change on its website and apologise for misleading people who trust it to provide high-quality health advice. It is good practice to acknowledge significant changes and errors (see BBC policy, Correcting mistakes, for example), especially when they have life-threatening consequences My suggested text:

Earlier versions of the page were headlined: “Chewing tobacco: not safer that cigarettes”.  The Mayo Clinic accepts this is and always has been inaccurate – chewing tobacco is much safer than cigarette smoking – and apologises to anyone who has been confused or mislead by this advice.

2. Conduct a purge review of governance and quality control

In the light of such a severe error that persisted for so long, despite concerns have been on the record and accepted by the U.S. government since 2003, the Mayo Clinic should review the governance and quality control of its advice on tobacco and health to ensure that it is making truthful and meaningful statements of the ‘whole truth’ to consumers.

3. Assess legal risks and liability arising from misinformation on tobacco and health

Given the litigation in this field and the potential that this advice has to mislead smokers into maintaining more harmful behaviours, the Mayo Clinic should assess any legal liability it may have for misleading smokers from its position of trust. It should consider its liability in all advice it offers that may have adverse behavioural consequences if wrong or misleading.

4. Provide better advice on tobacco and health to people who trust the Mayo Clinic

The formulation, Chewing tobacco: not a safe product, is in the category technically-correct-but-misleading and, therefore, is not truthful. Remember the imperative to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”?  The Mayo Clinic should progress to the next level of reduced deceitfulness and attempt to communicate something factually useful about smokeless tobacco. For example, it could use the following formulation.

No tobacco product is safe, but smokeless tobacco products present substantially lower risks to health than cigarettes

This is based on the suggested wording of tobacco companies trying get the FDA stop imposing warnings on cigarette packs that mislead consumers – see my posting: Misleading the public for their own good? Changing the warnings on snus.

It could even move closer to truthfulness.  It should ask its experts to undertake a literature review and provide reasonable and defendable quantified estimate so that the visitors to its site in search of meaningful information would, in fact, find meaningful and actionable information. Perhaps ending up with something like following, which is the advice I would give about smokeless tobacco:

 You should not assume that any tobacco product is completely safe, but smokeless tobacco products are likely to have at least 95% lower risks to health than cigarettes and there will be some variation in risks between between different types and brands

5. Try to uphold its own mission and values statement

The Mayo Clinic should uphold its Mayo Clinic Mission and Values and stop trying to fool the public, by accident or design, about the risks of smokeless tobacco.

Mission: To inspire hope and contribute to health and well-being by providing the best care to every patient through integrated clinical practice, education and research.

Primary value. The needs of the patient come first.

Integrity. Adhere to the highest standards of professionalism, ethics and personal responsibility, worthy of the trust our patients place in us.

Others are guilty too

See Brad Rodu’s excellent post on the misleading smokeless tobacco campaign of the U.S. FDA – FDA Smokeless Tobacco Campaign is Incompatible with Science-Based Regulation.

Naturally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control continues its leadership in misleading by omission. It says nothing about the most relevant health comparator – cigarettes – on its smokeless tobacco pages.

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11 thoughts on “Mayo Clinic progresses from blatantly wrong to deeply misleading”

  1. There is nothing at all unusual about this. I have documented a long history of bright-line false statements being replaced by functionally equivalent technically true statements that send the exact same message to most readers (though in this case, the statement may still be technically false). This has happened many times when Brad Rodu, I, or others called someone on a particular statement. I have also documented that Mayo has always been one of the worst anti-THR liars out there. There is no excuse for anyone to pretend shock about this.

  2. Andrew Thompson

    “Not a safe product” for example, can mean any of the following things in relative terms:

    3% … 98% safer than cigarettes

    The term “Not a safe product” would not seem to put a ‘100%’ cap on that possible danger. It could be read to mean that vaping is (plucks figure from air) 200% more dangerous than smoking.

    Of course, the same was true of the “Not safer than cigarettes” claim..

  3. As an exsmoker, now vaper, I am sure that I along with many others appreciate the work and effort you and other public health advocates put towards correcting the many false and misleading claims made by Tobacco Control. And yet, I remain in a state of deep conflict over this support.

    Neither yourself, nor any other of the so-called vapers friends will ever admit or acknowledge let alone ‘correct’ the vastly exaggerated claims made over SHS.

    As vapers we would not be in this situation if not for the climate of deep intolerance created by those exaggerations over SHS.

    The hypocrisy here is quite galling for many of us who nonetheless must accept the help because we cannot do without it.

    1. jonathan bagley

      Bill, direct measurements say four hours a day in a smokey bar is equivalent to ten cigs a year smoked. The anti smoking industry will have tried it’s best to come up with a higher figure, but the highest I’ve seen is three cigs a week. That’s why I, along with Richard Doll, believe the harm from SHS is neglible, even without modern air cleaning systems. The UK Gov showed it’s true colours by banning smoking in private clubs staffed by volunteers smoking members and those involved have since admitted the ban was not based on science, but was an attempt to denormalise smoking. Vaping has thrown a big spanner in the works. The Gov will really plumb the depths when it starts Taxing eliquid, as it surely will.

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  5. Bill Godshall

    Thanks for posting this Clive.

    But don’t expect Mayo Clinic (or hundreds of other healthcare service providers in the US) to heed your ethical advice advice as long as the US FSPTCA requires all smokeless tobacco products to post warnings saying “This product is not a safe alternative to cigarettes”, “This product may cause mouth cancer”, and “This product may cause gum disease and tooth loss.”

    Even worse, Big Pharma financed CTFK, ACS, AHA, ALA just recently convinced City Councils in Boston, SF, Chicago and New York (where only about .1% of residents use smokeless tobacco) to ban all adults from using smokeless tobacco at baseball games by lying about its negligible risks to users (even though it poses no risks to nonusers), and by falsely claiming that allowing adult baseball players to use smokeless tobacco use encourages teen use (as the municipalities in the US with the lowest smokeless tobacco use are the 32 cities with Major League Baseball teams).

    Regarding Paul’s comment, while some anti smoking activists have exaggerated some disease risks attributable to 2nd hand smoke exposure, the evidence is clear that 2nd hand smoke exposure (similar to exposure to high levels of outdoor pollution in some cities) is harmful to nonsmokers (as well as smokers).

  6. Roberto Sussman

    “the evidence is clear that 2nd hand smoke exposure (similar to exposure to high levels of outdoor pollution in some cities) is harmful to nonsmokers (as well as smokers).”

    This is a strong general statement, so if true it should apply to all indoor and outdoor 2nd hand smoking conditions. Can you please supply examples of this evidence? I doubt it because your statement is not rue in outdoor conditions: 2nd hand smoke concentrations at 2 meters from the source are practically undetectable. Your statement is also questionable in indoor conditions, as it does not take into account the effects of ventilation. Perhaps long exposure to 2nd hand smoke in small poorly ventilated indoor conditions can be harmful to very sensitive or ill non-smokers, but for most non-smokers it is merely an irritant and may in the short term only cause mild respiratory hazards. Long term exposure has been well studied: there are close to 130 epidemiological studies that fail to reveal a statistically significant connection to lung cancer. The effects of 2nd hand smoke exposure in well ventilated conditions are practically imperceptible. Airplane cabin air was of better quality when smoking sections were allowed than today when smoking is forbidden. The reason is simply ventilation.

    You say that “some anti smoking activists have exaggerated some disease risks attributable to 2nd hand smoke exposure”. No, this is not true, these activists did not exaggerate, they simply and bluntly lied about it (and it is not only “some” activists lying but “all” activists).

    Lying about the damage by 2nd hand smoke badly damages the credibility of medical science and institutions. In the end they will have to acknowledge this damage.

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