Do you know the difference between light, mild, and full-flavored cigarettes? Can you point out exactly what makes snus, snuff, and chewing tobacco the same, but different? If you answered no to these questions, you have good company in the United States.

According to researchers from the University of Buffalo, the American public has a “considerable lack of knowledge” when it comes to the risks associated with different types of tobacco products. "Even for e-cigarettes, half of the public incorrectly believed them to be just as dangerous as cigarettes and an overwhelming majority of respondents incorrectly believed smokeless tobacco to be just as dangerous as traditional cigarettes," Marc Kiviniemi and co-author Lynn Kozlowski wrote in the paper, published in the Harm Reduction Journal.

The researchers also found that 75 percent of Americans believed tobacco products, like chewing tobacco, snus, and snuff, were just as harmful as cigarettes when this certainly isn’t the case. To say that smokeless tobacco products are safe would be untrue, but they are safer when compared to cigarettes. “[T]he best evidence we have is that they are not as risky as traditional cigarettes. When people are making decisions, that difference in risk is important,” Kiviniemi said in a press release. “There seems to be this perception that all tobacco is equally bad and that doesn't fit the expert understanding of reality.”

Though cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products are protected by the Food and Drug Administration, the packaging and warning labels on smokeless tobacco products don’t help consumers understand that they are a safer alternative to cigarettes. Though both are dangerous options, an analogy Kiviniemi brings up is a person crossing a busy street with and without a stop sign; one option is more dangerous than the other, but ultimately they’re both dangerous.

The researchers analyzed data from the Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS), a population-representative survey of U.S. adults conducted between October 2012 and January 2013, and came to some interesting conclusions:

• 35 percent of U.S. adults did not know that various cigarettes are equal in risk.

• Current smokers were twice as likely as former smokers to believe that some cigarettes are safer than others.

• 13 percent of U.S. adults believe that some types of cigarettes are less harmful than others.

• 90 percent of U.S. adults aren't aware that smokeless tobacco products are less hazardous than cigarettes.

• 51 percent think e-cigarettes are less harmful than regular cigarettes.

Kiviniemi and Kozlowski end the paper by saying that it’s easy to say what is safe and what isn’t safe, but if you’re looking to get into smoking or using tobacco products, you really need to educate yourself on the risks you’ll be taking. Or you could just not indulge in those risks at all. There’s always that.

Source: Kiviniemi, M. Kozlowski, L. Deficiencies in public understanding about tobacco harm reduction: results from a United States national survey. Harm Reduction Journal. 2015