Few areas of contentious debate suffer from as much fake or misleading news as e-cigarettes.
Journalists on the hunt for click-worthy headlines pounce on any study, review or op-ed allegedly showing some previously unknown harm from vaping.
The most popular feature of these stories is to lurch to some kind of equivalency between e-cigarettes and tobacco cigarettes, a strong signal the story is almost certainly inaccurate.
The demand for bad vaping news is insatiable both amongst hacks and anti-e-cigarette fanatics, but unfortunately for this odd couple, the supply just isn’t there.
E-cigarettes and other reduced risk products in the heat-not-burn category are producing a free-market revolution in health. Driven by innovation and entrepreneurship these products are making the experience of quitting smoking easier and more appealing to millions across the planet.
But stories of people switching to e-cigarettes and reducing their risk of death and disease rarely receive the same excitable headlines as dubious studies advancing questionable theories of the risks of vaping.
The most recent example of lackluster journalism in the e-cigarette universe concerns a study from the University of California Los Angeles examining habitual e-cigarette use and increased cardiovascular risk.
The study was extremely small, with just 42 participants. It concluded that vaping might be associated with increased cardiovascular risk. But even these modest and indecisive findings were caveated in the study’s press release.
“The researchers note that they cannot confirm causality on the basis of a single, small study and that further research into the potential adverse cardiovascular health effects of e-cigarettes is warranted,” said the press release.
Other experts were quick to highlight the study’s limitations. “Overall, then, this is a small study with several possible explanations for the findings, only one of which could be that using e-cigarettes is a possible risk for heart disease,” Paul Aveyard, Professor of Behavioral Medicine at the University of Oxford commented.
“These findings cannot conclude that heart disease will develop as a result of vaping without smoking,” Linda Bauld, Professor of Health Policy at the University of Stirling added.
So what was the media’s reaction to this vaping study which didn’t really say much of anything?
Total and utter hysteria.
“E-cigarettes DO increase your risk of heart disease,” screamed the Daily Mail. “Vaping might increase your risk of heart disease, just like regular cigarettes,” The Verge solemnly declared.
One of the worst offenders was Denisse Moreno from International Business Times who ran with the headline “Is Vaping Bad For You? E-Cigs Could Be As Dangerous As Cigarettes, May Increase Risk For Heart Disease.”
There was absolutely nothing in the study which suggested e-cigarettes could be as dangerous as combustible cigarettes. When I pointed this out to her on Twitter, she blocked me.
Venturing to her personal website, I explained to her in a message why the headline was false, asked if she would like to give her reasoning for the headline, and if she would like to give a comment for this story.
I didn’t receive a response but the headline was changed to a less inflammatory “Is Vaping Bad For You? E-Cigs Could Increase Risk For Heart Disease, Study Says.”
Unfortunately, changing headlines from outright falsehoods to very misleading doesn’t do much to help the public understand the real risks of vaping vis-à-vis smoking.
Debates over media ethics and balanced coverage are still raging among reporters covering politics and culture in the age of Trump, but in the realm of science and health journalism, there is a disturbing lack of self-reflection.
As a former journalist, I recognize the temptation to embellish a study’s findings for the sake of a good headline. I’ve been guilty of it just as much as any other journalist.
But when journalists stray from hyperbole to outright falsehoods the public is in danger of being misinformed about products and choices that could affect their lives in the most important ways possible.
Misunderstanding of the risks of e-cigarettes is rife and could have major implications for public health. The more people believe vaping poses a similar risk to smoking, the less people will be inclined to switch and reduce their risk of life-threatening illnesses.
Too often today, the best response to the majority of e-cigarette coverage is to ignore it and go to original sources yourself to discover the real trade-offs between smoking and vaping.
Guy Bentley (@gbentley1) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a consumer freedom research associate at the Reason Foundation and was previously a reporter for the Daily Caller.