Another day, another round of terrible science reporting on vaping

This week, several high-profile media outlets are reporting on a new study suggesting that vaping causes DNA mutations which lead to cancer. While some were more cautious in their reporting, the Daily Mail and Lad Bible both opted for the headline “Vaping causes cancer”. Such reporting is irresponsible, especially since it omits significant criticisms of the study’s conclusions. Responding to the study, Prof. Peter Hajek (Director of the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit at Queen Mary University of London) said:

Human cells were submerged in nicotine and in off-the-shelf bought carcinogenic nitrosamines. It is not surprising of course that this damaged the cells, but this has no relationship to any effects of e-cigarettes on people who use them.

In the other part of this study, animals [mice] were exposed to what for them are extremely large doses of nicotine and this also generated some damage, but this too has unclear relevance for effects of vaping.

No comparison with conventional cigarettes was made, but in the text of the article, the authors acknowledge the key bit of information that is of crucial relevance in this story: Vapers show a reduction in these chemicals of 97% compared to smokers. They should have added that his may well be the level that non-smokers obtain from their environment.

Let me put this plainly. This study does not show that vaping causes cancer. The animal component of the study is especially poor evidence for such a hypothesis. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that subjecting mice to human-level doses of nicotine at frequencies far in excess of even the most committed vaper’s behaviour (puffs of 4-second duration at 30-second intervals for 3 hours a day) is a poor indicator of whether vaping is carcinogenic to humans.

This isn’t the first time that ill-informed, sensationalist reporting of the health effects of vaping has poisoned public perceptions of these products, which are currently saving lives as smoking cessation aids. When I first started vaping, I was alarmed to read claims in major news outlets (such as NPR) that hidden formaldehyde in e-cigarette aerosols could increase lifetime cancer risk by as much as 15 times more than if I was a long-term cigarette smoker. Unlike this week’s articles, NPR at least included responses from people who were aware of some basic facts about vaping. The study’s conclusions were, if you’ll pardon the pun, a load of hot air:

The authors had constructed a battery and atomizer combination that, when operated at a higher voltage setting, would mean that the atomizer ran extremely hot and constituents in the liquid would create thermal decomposition products, including formaldehyde.

The fatal flaw in the [study’s conclusions] is that under these conditions the vapour tastes so acrid and harsh that human users will not inhale it—a widely known phenomenon known as ‘dry puff’. It means that calculations of human cancer risks are based on conditions that no human user would tolerate even momentarily, let alone over a full life-time.

One-sided clickbait scaremongering on e-cigarettes can mean lives lost. It puts people off switching from cigarettes to vaping alternatives, despite the latter being at least 95% safer according to Public Health England. As our former Executive Director has highlighted, many smokers are discouraged from switching due to misplaced safety concerns:

23% of smokers said they hadn't tried an e-cig because they were concerned about safety, and of people who had tried e-cigs but gave them up, 35% said that it was because e-cigs might not be safe enough.

This week’s reporting genuinely infuriates me. I work in a think-tank that, among other things, concerns itself with liberal approaches to harm reduction; I therefore have a strong incentive to dig deeper when headlines warn that vaping causes cancer. Many of my friends do not but do read Lad Bible and The Daily Mail; they are more likely to take such claims at face value and adjust their views on e-cigarettes accordingly. Sadly, politicians are often in the same situation. Reporting that omits the fact that vaping is significantly safer than smoking cigarettes will make it harder to pass the sort of liberal regulatory reforms that will save lives.