Thursday, April 27, 2006

Oncologist Switches Careers: From Fighting Cancer to Promoting It

In a strange turn of events, an oncologist who previously fought cancer through treating cancer patients and researching the causes of cancer is now going to work for a tobacco company and joining the effort to promote cancer to thousands of customers throughout the world.

According to a press release issued this morning: "Lars Erik Rutqvist, Professor of Oncology, Senior Consultant and former Head of the Department of Oncology, Huddinge University Hospital & Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, has been appointed Vice President, Scientific Affairs within the Swedish Match Group. Lars Erik Rutqvist has a long and solid experience of both clinical and epidemiological cancer research. ... 'Cigarette smoking presents an important and growing health problem in the world. This must be met by active measures to limit unhealthy activities. In this respect, Swedish Match can make a positive contribution. It is an exciting challenge to contribute to this development. No other single effort for public health is more important than to induce people to refrain from cigarettes and I will continue to work for this, only now from a new position with a broader perspective,' says Lars Erik Rutqvist."

The Rest of the Story

The rest of the story is that "Swedish Match is the largest producer and distributor of chewing tobacco in the US, with a market share of slightly more than 44 percent, according to AC Nielsen. The company´s largest brands are Red Man, Southern Pride and Granger Select. ... As the market´s leading company for chewing tobacco, Swedish Match will continue to focus on high product quality and effective market communication. The product area is expected to generate a continued strong cash flow."

The rest of the story is that this strong cash flow will come at the expense of hundreds of deaths from the use of its products each year. In the United States alone, there are approximately 28,000 cases of oral cancer each year and about 8,000 deaths. Five-year survival rates for oral cancer are only about 50%. In parts of Asia where chewing tobacco use is common, oral cancer rates are three times higher than in the U.S. And in some areas of India, oral cancer accounts for 40% of female cancer deaths.

Oral cancer is a nasty disease: without question, it is the nastiest disease that I saw as a physician. Believe me - this is one cancer you do not want to have. Complete disfigurement is all I can say. Yet it's almost entirely preventable, as 90% of these cases are attributable to alcohol and/or tobacco use.

Regardless of what Swedish Match might be doing in promoting snus use in Sweden (and regardless of whether snus is preventing smoking-related deaths by helping people quit smoking by switching to snus - a safer alternative product), the company's products are still killing hundreds of people annually due to oral cancer from its chewing tobacco, and Dr. Rutqvist is now a Vice President for this company.

I understand that someone has to serve in the role of scientific affairs within the company and I don't think that accepting this position makes the oncologist a bad or evil person in any way. However, he has no business getting up in front of the world and giving us all this crap about how Swedish Match is going to make a "positive contribution" to the public's health.

If Swedish Match really wants to make a positive contribution to the public's health, then it should simply stop selling its deadly, cancerous products to thousands of Americans and others throughout the world. That would make a positive contribution.

Understand that I'm not arguing that Swedish Match should make a positive contribution to the public's health. It's a tobacco company, not a public health organization, and its job is to sell tobacco, not to improve the public's health.

So I'm not really asking Swedish Match to make a positive contribution to the public's health. I'm simply stating that when the new Vice President of the company gets up and tells us what a positive contribution the company is going to make to the public's health, yet the company is going to continue marketing its deadly, cancer-causing products, what we are hearing is complete crap.

The oncologist is entitled to take this job and perhaps he can help develop safer smokeless tobacco alternatives. Fine. But don't get up in front of me and tell me that you are going to make a positive contribution to the public's health when your new company is killing hundreds of my brothers and sisters each year due to the terrible, disfiguring, disgusting, and devastating effects of your products.

Just do your job and let your new customers die in peace. Spare us the crap.

Here's the rest of the story - a story that is typical for many of Swedish Match's customers:

According to "Take Bill Tuttle, for example. An outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, the Kansas City Athletics (before they moved to Oakland), and the Minnesota Twins, Tuttle chewed tobacco for most of his career. In fact, a lot of Tuttle's baseball cards over the years pictured him with a cheek bulging with chewing tobacco. Thirty-eight years after the end of his baseball career, Tuttle had a more ominous bulge in his cheek - a huge tumor that was so big that it came through his cheek and extended through his skin. Doctors removed the tumor, along with much of Tuttle's face. Chewing tobacco as a young man had cost him his jawbone, his right cheekbone, a lot of his teeth and gum line, and his taste buds. Cancer caused by his chewing habit finally claimed him in 1998, but Tuttle spent the rest of his life trying to steer young people, as well as grown athletes, away from smokeless tobacco."

As Joe Garagiola said (see the Mayo Clinic website): "I chewed tobacco because it seemed to be the thing to do if you were playing baseball. You won't die of gum disease or yellow teeth, but develop oral cancer and it's a terrible way to go. Here you are with oral cancer from using spit tobacco, your jaw has been removed and you have to eat through a tube. You die one piece at a time. Spit tobacco is a horrible, horrible thing. I just wish I could get this message across to everyone."

It doesn't look like Joe will be getting any help any more from Dr. Rutqvist. Instead, the oncologist will be working for a company that promotes chewing tobacco use and whose products contribute to hundreds of oral cancer deaths each year.

Again, that's his business and I'm not criticizing him for taking the job. But no one is going to get up in front of me and do a song and dance about how his tobacco company is going to make a positive contribution to the public's health and how no other single effort in public health is more important than what he will be doing for the company, and how he will be able to continue what he was doing as an oncologist by working for a tobacco company.

That's a load of crap. And I'm not going to take that. It's like spitting chewing tobacco in the faces of oral cancer victims - former patients of mine - all over the country.

NOTE: This post is dedicated to Nikki, the first oral cancer patient who I ever treated.

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