Clouding the debate: why e-cigarettes have attracted so much junk science
BY: Pascal Culverhouse
Do misleading, flawed, or deceptive e-cigarette studies get your goat? Here’s how you can spot junk science…
The science behind e-cigarette studies, as a whole, is exceptionally poor. The problem is that the media doesn’t really prefer good science to bad science, but rather it prefers sensational science to boring science. As a result, there have been several sensational headlines about vaping based on very poor science.
Sadly, these sensationalized headlines are changing public perception. We all know at least one smoker who thinks that, based on what the newspapers say, “vaping is just as bad as smoking so they might as well not even try to switch”. This is an attitude that the tobacco companies are delighted with, but the rest of us should find deeply troubling.
The only solution is to learn how to spot junk science so that we can explain why vapers shouldn’t necessarily believe everything that they read in the papers…
1. Read the science, not the headlines
Do not trust science journalists to tell you the full story. Instead, read the study for yourself and make an informed decision. As a general rule, the harder a study is to find, the less likely it is to be accurate. This is because scientists, like the rest of us, tend to prominently display the work they are really proud of while stuffing the rest under the bed and hoping that no one will notice. If you can’t find the study, or can find the study but there are significant chunks missing, then you should be skeptical about why that might be.
2. Compare the conclusion of the study to the results
Science gives us results, but it’s up to scientists to come up with the conclusions… and they don’t always get the right ones. Look at the results of each study for yourself and see what conclusion you would come to.
Sometimes the evidence says one thing yet the scientists say another. In the infamous #SanDiegoGate vaping study, some human cells were doused in e-cigarette vapor and some were doused in cigarette smoke. The cells exposed to cigarette smoke died within 24 hours while the cells exposed to e-cigarette vapor showed some damage after eight weeks. Yet the conclusion that was made by one of the scientists was that e-cigarette vapor might be “no safer than tobacco”.
Fortunately, critics noticed the mistake. Adam Jacobs described the Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the study as the “most dangerous, irresponsible, and ill-informed piece of health journalism of 2015.” The scientist responsible
issued a correction making it clear just how dangerous cigarette smoke is.
3. When it comes to ‘toxic chemicals’, the dose makes the poison
Every toxicologist knows that the “dose makes the poison”. In other words, finding very low levels of a toxic chemical isn’t necessarily cause for alarm. For example, we think of arsenic, mercury and nickel as being extremely poisonous… and they can be. But all three metals, along with a host of other toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, are naturally occurring in the human bloodstream. Indeed, in low quantities arsenic may even play a positive health role. The deadly poison cyanide can be found in the seeds of an apple.
So if you find a study which draws attention to the potential presence of a toxic chemical in e-cigarette vapor, the important questions are “how much” and “how does this compare to the amount found in cigarettes?”
For instance, a recent Harvard study found diacetyl in some e-cigarette flavorings. Diacetyl is a chemical that most vapers are aware of. It occurs naturally in apples, beans and butter and is used (by some but not all) e-juice manufacturers to create a buttery taste. Unfortunately, diacetyl is also suspected of causing an outbreak of incurable lung disease in popcorn factory workers.
The media, sensing the opportunity to sensationalize, saw the study as evidence that vaping causes popcorn lung. But the doctors said otherwise. Dr. Michael Siegel actually measured the amount of diacetyl in e-cigarette vapor and found that the levels were barely detectable — comparable to the amount of arsenic that you’d find in the human bloodstream. He also measured the amount of diacetyl in cigarette smoke, and he found that daily exposure to diacetyl from smoking was 750 times higher than the daily exposure to diacetyl from vaping. So any smoker worried about their diacetyl intake would do well to switch to vaping immediately!
4. Does the study reflect how the e-cigarette is used in the real world?
You can make just about anything dangerous if you use it in the wrong way. Just because I can hit myself over the head with a frying pan doesn’t mean that frying pans themselves are dangerous. The same applies to e-cigarettes. Just because they have the potential to be misused, doesn’t mean that they should be considered dangerous. Check to see if how the e-cigarette is used in the study actually reflects how vapers use e-cigarettes in the real world.
Perhaps the most controversial e-cigarette ‘study’ of all is the ‘formaldehyde’ study. A controversial letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine last year linked e-cigarettes to dangerously high levels of formaldehyde. But the scientists behind this study were only able to get these results by overheating their e-cigarettes — causing what vapers know (and hate) as a ‘dry hit’. More than 40 researchers called on the journal to get the letter retracted for being misleading.
Fortunately, a more objective group of scientists repeated the formaldehyde experiment. Chemistry professor Kurt Kistler tested e-cigarettes for ‘aldehydes’ and found that, even at the highest power settings, the majority of e-cigarettes produce a fraction of the toxic chemicals generated by standard cigarettes. While an e-cigarette user will typically inhale less than 1 milligram of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, a cigarette user will inhale 1.5-2.5 mg of formaldehyde and 10-30 mg of acetaldehyde.
5. Are the scientists playing fast and loose with the definitions?
Sometimes scientists use words in a way which is vague or deliberately misleading.
A common argument against e-cigarettes is that they encourage teenagers to smoke. There is no evidence to suggest this, in fact, the data shows that where teen e-cigarette use rises, the smoking rates tend to fall.
However, one misleading survey found that “students who’d tried vaping were more likely to have smoked six or twelve months later, in comparison to those who’d never vaped”. The problem with this survey? It was worded in such a way that suggested teenagers who vaped were more likely to go on to smoke. But what it actually found was the teenagers who’d “ever” tried a vape pen were more likely to “ever” try a cigarette. What it didn’t show is that teenagers who vaped more than once went on to smoke more than once.
These junk science e-cig studies are not just misleading… they’re dangerously misleading. The bottom line is that there’s still no good scientific reason to believe that vaping poses even a fraction of the dangers that smoking does.
Author Bio: Pascal Culverhouse founded the Electric Tobacconist in 2013. Less than 18 months later the business was the UK’s number one online retailer of e-cigarettes. He still finds time to vape everyday and keeps up with the latest e-cig trends.