Smokeless Tobacco Products’ Warning Label Has Misled People for 30 Years

    Smokeless Tobacco Products' Warning Label Has Misled People for 30 Years

    US Tobacco History

    The U.S. government passed legislation in 1986 about a series of warnings against smokeless tobacco products. This included one that said; “this product is not a safe alternative to cigarettes.”

    However, that warning did not include an important distinction. Compared with smokeless tobacco products, cigarettes do much more harm to health. Over the past 30-plus years, most of the American public has not been aware of the fact that smokeless tobacco is much less harmful than cigarettes. One of the country’s leading tobacco policy experts wrote in a paper published recently in the Harm Reduction Journal.

    “It is important to distinguish between evidence that a product is ‘not safe’ and evidence that a product is ‘not safer’ than cigarettes or ‘just as harmful’ as cigarettes,” says paper author Lynn Kozlowski. Kozlowski is a professor of community health and health behavior at the University of Buffalo’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.

    Kozlowski added, “this distinction was not noticed during the establishment of the official smokeless tobacco warning in the 1980s. Therefore, most Americans don’t know that smokeless tobacco is much less harmful than cigarettes.”

    Warning Labels

    Kozlowski pointed out that as long as cigarettes are still legal in the United States, American consumers should be offered appropriate information. Information about the relative risks of tobacco/nicotine products which are less lethal or harmful than cigarettes. Consumers should have access to information about the ways in which a product causes harm, he said. Adding that no product should be considered harmless.

    In his paper, Kozlowski examines the origins of warning labels in the 1980s and the war that was brewing between the smokeless tobacco industry and U.S. cigarette companies.

    This led to the labeling of smokeless tobacco products as “not a safe alternative to cigarettes”. Neither liked the warning labels that many states were asking for, which mentioned the addictive nature of smokeless tobacco. The fear was that cigarettes would be next on the list to be declared addictive.

    Smokeless Tobacco Products' Warning Label Has Misled People for 30 Years

    Cigarette Advertising

    In addition, U.S. cigarette companies and health authorities backed at a successful advertising campaign for Skoal’s wintergreen flavored moist snuff. The campaign encouraged consumers to take a pouch instead of a puff, which, to some groups, meant that the Skoal product was a safe alternative to smoking cigarettes.

    As smokeless tobacco became more and more popular, many states began to take measures. By January 1986, more than twenty states had passed legislation requiring smokeless tobacco products to be labeled with a warning.

    Many labels stated that the products contained nicotine and were addictive. Others warned that smokeless tobacco may cause oral cancer. None of them, however, included the “not a safe alternative to cigarettes” message.

    Mr. Kozlowski said that this came to the attention of the cigarette industry. There were concerns that the state’s strict labels for smokeless tobacco products could also affect cigarette package warnings.

    Kozlowski researched more than 400 documents issued or published between 1964 and 1990 to better understand the historical context of the warning labels. The review included internal industry documents, legislative materials, and media reports.

    Cigarette and E-Cigs, do consumers really know which is safer?

    “One particularly striking thing is that there is evidence that suggests the cigarette industry was concerned about smokeless tobacco being marketed in a way that seemed to promote smokeless as less harmful than cigarettes,” Kozlowski said.

    “Understanding the origins of warning labels is still linked today to emerging products such as e-cigarettes. Nor should e-cigarettes be labeled as misleading “unsafe alternatives to cigarettes,” Kozlowski said.

    Ultimately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can help eliminate any confusion among tobacco and nicotine products users, Kozlowski said.

    “The FDA Tobacco Law could help to improve the warning labels, stop using the ‘not a safe alternative’ warnings and mount public education efforts. They can also educate them on the differential harms of tobacco/nicotine products,” he said. “Focusing on the ‘no safe product’ message disserves the actual consumers of multiple products who should be aware of the risks of different products.”


    Ryan is a writer, editor and content creator who spends most of his time bringing the interesting, entertaining, original and well-written articles to vapers. He believes that vaping is not only a healthier alternative to smoking, but also a great experience of life.