Earlier this month, news outlets all over the world reported breathlessly on new research which claimed to find that e-cigarette users were 15 percent more likely to have a stroke at young age than smokers. News sources as diverse as the Daily Mail in the UK, the South African Sunday Times, and all major U.S. TV stations picked up on it ensuring that a large portion of the global population were exposed to this bad news.
The problem is that this “research” was at best, highly misleading and, at worst, plain wrong.
First, this was not new published research as a casual reader might assume, but instead an unpublished conference presentation given a boost by the American Heart Association (AHA) which is explicitly opposed to reduced risk alternatives to smoking such as vaping.
As Jonathan Swift once wrote, “falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.” So while millions globally were being misled by the fear-peddling headlines, far fewer people would have read expert rebuttals which came soon after from the Science Media Centre.
Professor Peter Hajek of Queen Mary University commented that, “It is likely that e-cigarette users in this cohort were smokers who switched to vaping AFTER they suffered a stroke. Presenting this as if vaping caused these strokes is misleading and could put smokers off switching to vaping.” While Dr Leonie Brose of Kings College London added: “At least some of the strokes would therefore have occurred before e-cigarette use. The strokes then could not have been caused or made more likely by e-cigarette use. It may also be that people switched to e-cigarettes after a stroke to reduce the stroke risk from smoking which would explain the association between a past stroke and current e-cigarette use.”
Professor Paul Aveyard also observed that “This press release could equally and accurately be headed as ‘E-cigarette users six times less likely to have a stroke than traditional cigarette smokers’. As they point out, ‘Stroke was far more common among traditional cigarette smokers than e-cigarette users or people who used both, 6.75% compared to 1.09% and 3.72%, respectively.’”
The original news alert has now been removed and the abstract has been withdrawn from the American Heart Association conference and will not now even be presented. It is literally a non-story. But one which is now likely to be believed by a huge number of people worldwide.
It is impossible to know what damage this misinformation will have caused in deterring smokers from switching to safer nicotine products, but there will be a significant negative effect to public health as a result. As Swift went on to say, “when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect.”
Whether this particular barrage of misinformation is an example of deliberate media manipulation is difficult to judge. If it was, the AHA has done the right thing in removing it, albeit too late.
However, this is just the latest in a string of negative media stories about vaping which have plagued the debate in recent years, most of which have little or no basis in fact. Often the research itself is fatally biased with the researchers deciding on a pre-conceived narrative and then inventing or manipulating data to support it.
There are a large number of organizations so opposed to tobacco harm reduction – the substitution of safer nicotine products instead of smoking – that they are desperate to find harm in e-cigarettes. For many, without the harm of combustible cigarettes their careers are threatened. If vaping replaced smoking and did their job of reducing smoking with little or no cost to the taxpayer, they would receive no grants and have nothing to do.
It seems likely that in this instance the AHA is guilty only of promoting a weak hypothesis without prudently assessing the accuracy of its conclusions, but the media is also guilty of not double-checking facts before producing sensationalist headlines which can have a real and damaging effect on public health in many countries.
We should expect better from public health researchers and science journalists alike.
Martin Cullip is the International Fellow at The Taxpayers Protection Alliance's Consumer Center and is based in South London, UK.