The great majority of smokers think they are well informed about the health risks of their habit, but many of them are wrong, a new U.S. survey suggests.
Researchers found that although 94 percent of the 1,046 adult smokers they surveyed believed they were adequately informed about the dangers of smoking, many either didn’t know the answer or answered incorrectly when asked specific questions about those health risks. For example, when asked whether their risk of having a heart attack was lower, higher or the same as other adults their age, 46 percent of the respondents did not know that their risk was higher. One-third agreed with the statement, “Cigarettes still have not been proven to cause cancer.” The survey also found a high degree of confusion when it came to “low-tar” and “light” cigarettes — products that have been heavily criticized because of the implication that they are “safer,” even though research has not shown them to lower smoking-related disease risk. About two-thirds of the survey respondents indicated they thought these products were less harmful than regular cigarettes. “When we asked specific questions about things smokers should know, people were really in the dark,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. K. Michael Cummings of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. The thrust of the tobacco companies’ defense, Cummings told Reuters Health, has been that people are fully aware of the health risks of smoking, and so are making an informed choice when they light up. But this study, of a nationally representative sample of U.S. smokers, shows that “smokers are misinformed about many aspects of the cigarettes they smoke,” Cummings and his colleagues report in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research. “I think that the tobacco companies are grossly responsible for the misinformation,” Cummings said. He suggested that a good start toward dispelling the confusion would be to get more information on cigarette packaging. More than three-quarters of the smokers his team surveyed wanted more information from tobacco companies — including facts on the chemicals in cigarette smoke. When asked, most of the smokers did not know that cigarette smoke contains lead, ammonia, arsenic and radioactive materials, the researchers found.Survey respondents also appeared misinformed about nicotine and nicotine replacement therapy, used to aid in kicking the smoking habit. Cummings and his colleagues found that two-thirds either mistakenly thought nicotine causes cancer or weren’t sure if it does. And many worried that they could easily become addicted to nicotine gum and patches. This is troublesome, according to Cummings, because many smokers are fearful of trying nicotine replacement therapy and believe they would just be trading one addiction for another. “There is a great need to do better education,” he said. “Smokers deserve the truth.” Cummings noted that, along with more-explicit information on cigarettes packs, additional public service efforts, like the “Truth” ads currently running on television, could help. (Source: Nicotine & Tobacco Research, Reuters Health, December 2004.)