Headlines Draw Misleading Conclusions About Cancer, Teens, And Vaping

Headlines Draw Misleading Conclusions About Cancer, Teens, And Vaping

Headlines Draw Misleading Conclusions About Cancer, Teens, And VapingHeadlines Draw Misleading Conclusions About Cancer, Teens, And Vaping

Most vapers by now have become accustomed to the majority of American media's reflexively pessimistic view when it comes to covering vapor products and science. This bias seems to stem from government health bodies, which take a much more conservative view on the value of vaping as a harm reduction tool, and trickles down in the form of sensational headlines that deliver clicks to news organizations but not so much useful information to consumers.  


We're used to seeing heavily-repeated content circulating around two main narratives: that vaping is A) full of carcinogens or toxins that can cause cancer; and B) that teens are attracted to vaping. Let's take a deeper look at one recent story that's getting national attention.


An NBC article with the headline “Teens Inhale Cancer-Causing Chemicals in E-Cigarettes” takes its information from a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics.


The story subhead reads "fruit flavors have the most chemicals, study finds," but a reading of the actual research paper (linked above) leaves this open to interpretation.


"There are researchers who suggests that certain flavorings may generate higher levels of toxic chemicals than others," the authors write, going on to note that they did detect higher levels of some compounds in teens who reported enjoying fruity e-liquids. But the article goes off-track when it brings a discussion of diacetyl (a buttery-tasting component used in some creamy- or bakery-flavored liquids), which is not found in fruit flavors or even mentioned in the study, into the mix.


The news that any potential carcinogens were found at elevated levels in fruit flavors deserves attention, despite the fact obfuscated by the NBC article that the study did not make any scientific claims about flavor. We'd love to see a study that explores the compounds found in specific flavor extracts, to help juice makers select the most benign flavor components, but such research would probably have to be funded by the vapor industry.


An even bigger problem is that the premise of the study is in itself a straw man argument - authors say they're challenging the assumption that vaping is perfectly safe, and congratulate themselves when they determine that it isn't. Thing is, no one in the vapor industry is arguing that vaping is safe - we're asserting that vaping is much less harmful than smoking. By including some underage vapers who also smoke in their research, the study in question was able to confirm that assertion. This point, however, received minimal treatment once the news report came out.


Also left out of the reporting was a major conflict of interest: researchers are cited simply as a "team at the University of California, San Francisco." But fine print at the bottom of the disclosures indicates that three members of the four-person team have received payments from companies promoting other tobacco cessation methods like quit-smoking drugs. It's likely these financial relationships didn't hinder the authors' ability to deliver trustworthy results, but if you're publishing information that could boost your employer's earnings by bashing its competition, it seems like readers should be made aware of that.


We're sadly not optimistic that things will change overnight, but it would be nice to see an alternate (and also correct) headline like "Toxic chemical level found at 327% lower level in vapers than smokers" once in a while.

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