Stephen Lance Dennee, Associated Press
In this Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011 photo, a billboard by stands along New Hartford Road in Owensboro, Ky. Dr. Brad Rodu, the director of the organization, and professor and researcher at the University of Louisville, is heading a new campaign for smokers to use smokeless tobacco in order to quit smoking, based on 20 years of research.

Kevin Nelson’s criticism of Utah politicians and the American Legislative Exchange Council included egregious distortions and demonstrably false statements ("Utah’s Children are not up for sale" Feb. 5).

The commentary was inexplicably illustrated with a billboard from the first ever community smoking cessation program (Switch and Quit Owensboro, KY) based on the science-based strategy of tobacco harm reduction. I directed this program, which counseled smokers to switch to smoke-free tobacco products that are 98 percent safer than smoking. While no tobacco product is completely safe, cigarette smokers are routinely misinformed — by government agencies, anti-tobacco extremists and now this commentary — about the relative safety of smokeless products. Unlike cigarettes, smokeless does not cause lung cancer, heart disease or emphysema.

Nelson’s statement about the World Health Organization study is a complete fabrication. The risk for mouth cancer with smokeless is far lower than with cigarettes. Statistically, smokeless users have about the same risk of dying from mouth cancer as automobile users have of dying in a car wreck.

Nelson’s claim that smokeless is as dangerous as smoking for heart attacks is a complete fabrication. The most comprehensive review of scientific studies concludes that the risk from smokeless tobacco use “appears to be substantially less than from smoking.”

In fact, switching from cigarettes to smokeless provides almost all of the health benefits of complete tobacco abstinence. A National Cancer Institute-funded study in 2004 concluded: “(Smokeless) products pose a substantially lower risk to the user than do conventional cigarettes. This finding raises ethical questions concerning whether it is inappropriate and misleading for government officials or public health experts to characterize smokeless tobacco products as comparably dangerous with cigarette smoking.”

Nelson claims that offering adult smokers safer products is putting children up for sale. Tobacco initiation by young people should be stopped in its tracks, but the relative safety of smokeless isn’t a children’s issue. The 8 million Americans who will die from smoking-related illness in the next 20 years are not children today; they are adults, 35 years and older. Preventing youth access to tobacco is vitally important, but that effort should never be used as a smokescreen to condemn to premature death those parents and grandparents who smoke cigarettes today.

Brad Rodu is a professor of medicine at the University of Louisville and holds an endowed chair of Tobacco Harm Reduction Research.