Public mistrust of e-cigarettes is rising after years of misinformation and scaremongering from some of the nation’s leading health bodies.
The Surgeon General, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as a host of researchers and activists have contributed to an environment where e-cigarettes are presumed guilty until proven innocent.
This is in spite of the fact that the overwhelming consensus is that e-cigarettes are significantly safer than combustible cigarettes. A landmark report from the Royal College of Physicians found e-cigarettes are unlikely to exceed 5% of the risks of regular cigarettes. There is also solid data that e-cigarettes are helping smokers quit regular cigarettes.
Unfortunately, an increasingly militant part of the public health movement has set its face against vaping and harm reduction in favor of a near religious-like adherence to nicotine abstinence.
Instead of welcoming e-cigarettes as a harm reduction tool, many in the world of tobacco control have sought to emphasize every possible negative of e-cigarettes while ignoring all possible benefits, resulting in poor advice and even worse policy proposals.
Unlike other public health areas such as sexual health or illegal drug use, where we recognize that an abstinence-only message doesn’t produce the best outcomes, the harm reduction approach is curiously absent from the tobacco arena.
The hostility toward e-cigarettes is so great that attempts to sow doubt about the relative risks of vaping versus smoking bear a striking resemblance to the efforts of tobacco companies in the 20th century to mask the true nature of their products.
For years, dubious research papers focusing on the risks e-cigarettes have been accompanied by press releases bursting with hyperbole and misleading claims. Journalists hungry for a good headline often seize upon these reports unquestioningly accepting their most dramatic claims or worst possible conclusions.
These stories provide superb shock value confounding the accepted consensus that e-cigarettes are safer than their combustible rivals, but offer little in the way of balance or information about the effects of switching from smoking to vaping.
“E-cigarettes are no safer than smoking tobacco, scientists warn” and “E-cigs just as harmful as tobacco for teeth and gums” are just two examples of the numerous headlines that have added to the public confusion on the real risks of vaping.
In 2016, the Huffington Post was forced to make several corrections to a video featuring none other than Governor Andrew Cuomo’s sister, Dr. Margaret Cuomo, after she made a number of false claims, including that an e-cigarette is “at least as harmful to your health as a regular tobacco cigarette.”
A more recent example of the misuse of e-cigarette research was a study from Virginia Commonwealth University. Professor Stanton Glantz at the University of California, San Francisco used the paper to show that experimenting with vaping causes young people to start smoking. The study, in fact, showed no such thing.
There are, of course, honorable exceptions in the field of tobacco control. Professor David Sweanor, Dr. Michael Siegel and Clive Bates are all prominent examples of people who have worked to vigorously to reduce smoking in their home countries and across the world.
What these experts have in common is not just a concern for people’s health but a recognition of the difficulties many smokers have quitting and accepting that lower-risk products are a preferable option to continued smoking.
They do not share the ideological zeal of some parts of the tobacco control movement and its obsession with banishing nicotine from society. But as the debate stands they face an uphill battle.
Several years of the background noise of claim and counterclaim has contaminated the public’s understanding of relative risk and harm reduction. Constant panics of teen vaping and unproven “gateway” effects take prominence in media coverage over the potential benefits of smokers switching to vaping.
The more public mistrust of e-cigarettes puts off smokers from even trying vaping as a quit option.
What should’ve been one of the best good news stories of the 21st century, namely that technological progress is creating jobs and businesses by making it enjoyable for people to quit smoking, has turned into a bitter debate shrouded in half-truths and embellished claims.
The truth is that even the most zealous critics of vaping usually, if reluctantly, concede that combustibles are more dangerous than e-cigarettes and smokers switching en masse to lower-risk products would be a huge win for public health.
But in their mission to destroy the tobacco industry and eradicate recreational nicotine use, e-cigarette critics have resorted to the very same tactics of sowing doubt and confusion that the tobacco industry used decades ago, with potentially devastating consequences for public health.
Mr. Bentley is a Consumer Freedom Research Associate at the Reason Foundation.