Science

US study: most doctors falsely believe nicotine causes cancer

According to a new study from the USA, eight out of ten doctors incorrectly believe nicotine leads to cancer, heart, and respiratory diseases, when in reality these diseases are caused by the toxic substances in cigarette smoke. 

“It’s frightening that so many doctors misinterpret the risks involved in nicotine use. It shows that lies from the anti-tobacco lobby are working,” says Patrik Strömer, Secretary General of the Association of Swedish Snus Manufacturers.

The study, “Nicotine Risk Misperception Among US Physicians”, was conducted between September 2018 and February 2019. It has now been published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, and consists of a study of more than 1,000 physicians specialising in six different areas of medicine

Physicians specialising in family medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, cardiology, pulmonary and emergency care, as well as hematology and oncology, were asked about their understanding of tobacco treatment methods, harm reduction, and tobacco and e-cigarette use.

8 of 10 doctors wrong about nicotine and cancer 

Although the primary risk from nicotine is substance addiction or dependence, 83 percent of the physicians surveyed strongly believed that nicotine contributed directly to heart disease, 81 percent believed that it contributed to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and 80.5 percent believed that it contributed to cancer.

“Nicotine is responsible for the highly addictive nature of tobacco products, but most diseases caused by tobacco are not caused by nicotine, but rather by other chemicals found in tobacco or tobacco smoke,” the study’s authors wrote. 

Family physicians were more likely than oncologists to misunderstand nicotine as a carcinogen. 

The study also showed that doctors in obstetrics and gynecology more often incorrectly identified nicotine as a risk factor in birth defects. 

Doctors need better information about risks

“In order to best serve patients, doctors need to be better informed that the primary risk of nicotine in tobacco products is that it causes dependence, while other carcinogens and chemicals, especially those produced by combustion, serve as the main source of risk for tobacco-related diseases,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers recommend short-term communication measures that can effectively correct the misconceptions about nicotine among physicians and the general public, an approach supported by Strömer. 

“Without the correct information, it’s more difficult to make the right choices. In this case, we have large parts of a professional body that hold views contrary to the scientific consensus,” he says.

Misinformation from the anti-tobacco movement

Strömer accuses the anti-tobacco movement of spreading false information about the various risks associated with many tobacco and nicotine products, arguing that such misinformation campaigns put public health in Sweden, the USA, and other countries at risk.

“It worries me that it’s controversial to tell the truth about nicotine and explain to people that snus is less harmful than cigarettes,” he says.

“When even the majority of trained doctors in the US have been deceived by the anti-tobacco movement’s erroneous claims that all tobacco is equally dangerous, it does not bode well for our ambition to help people quit smoking and choose less harmful alternatives.” 

Read more: Studies and research on snus