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Bogus E-cigarette Panic Literally Killing People

Is this a story from The Onion? It’s a question we often ask ourselves these days when we encounter stories online that seem too ridiculous to be true. Sadly, Cheantay Jensen’s recent article about why she returned to smoking is not satire. In all earnestness, Jensen describes how e-cigarettes helped her quit smoking, how the switch improved her life, and how fear drove her back to traditional cigarettes—a product that kills half its users. It isn’t satire, but it should be a cautionary tale for anti-tobacco advocates. It is their lying that has led adults like Jensen to mistakenly believe e-cigarettes are no better for their health than smoking. And it’s because of their lies that millions of people will continue to smoke and die.

Jensen writes that she started smoking at the age of sixteen, but after nearly a decade of the habit, the freelance reporter turned to e-cigarettes to help her quit. By her account, it worked. She stopped smoking, her smoker’s cough disappeared, she smelled better, and felt better about herself. But, she writes that she found herself vaping much more than she ever smoked. “I became even more addicted to nicotine than I ever was when I [smoked],” she notes. And because she worried that she had merely traded one risk for other, equally dangerous risks, she returned to smoking in the hopes of lessening her nicotine dependence.

What Jensen doesn’t realize is that she has been bamboozled. Justified by the need to scare teenagers away from e-cigarettes, government health agencies and preeminent health bodies have relentlessly engaged in a campaign of misinformation, exaggeration, and outright lying about e-cigarettes. Their hope was to make vaping seem far more dangerous than the evidence indicates. And they’ve succeeded.

“Scientists have been working hard to debunk the belief that e-cigarettes are less harmful than traditional cigarettes,” the American Lung Association (ALA) noted in a recent post. Yet, despite this hard work by ostensibly objective scientists, they haven’t yet been able to refute the large and growing body of evidence that vaping is less harmful than smoking. Failing to verify their alternative facts, they have instead turned to baseless fear-mongering. 

Perhaps the most egregious example of anti-vaping advocates’ willingness to set facts aside is their repeated claim that vaping causes “popcorn lung” (bronchiolitis obliterans), a rare and debilitating lung disorder. The claim is based on the fact that some e-cigarettes contain the flavoring agent diacetyl. Diacetyl has been linked to popcorn lung, but primarily in factory workers at microwave popcorn plants (hence the name) exposed to massive amounts of the chemical. It might seem acceptable, based on that, to say there’s a chance the diacetyl in e-cigarette vapor could possibly cause popcorn lung in people who vape. But what the stalwart defenders of public health never point out is that cigarettes contain hundreds of times more diacetyl than e-cigarettes, and research finds no link between smoking and popcorn lung. Thus it is ludicrous—one might even say irresponsible—to suggest that popcorn lung is a risk faced by those who vape. But that hasn’t stopped groups like the ALA from doing exactly that.

I have no doubt that there are many well-funded scientists who, instead of objectively comparing the risks of vaping and smoking, are actively searching for something—anything—that will allow groups like the ALA, the American Heart Association, and the the American Cancer Society to continue dismissing the benefits of switching from smoking to vaping. In the meantime, these groups have relied on pseudoscience to win the public relations war.

As of 2017, more than half of U.S. adults said they believed that e-cigarettes were as harmful or more harmful than cigarettes. More disturbingly, the number of smokers who hold this mistaken belief has increased from under 12% in 2012 to over 35% in 2015. These numbers have certainly increased in the last two years with the media serving as a megaphone for anti-vaping groups and incuriously regurgitating their disinformation. Unfortunately, it is people like Jensen, smokers desperate to quit for the sake of their health, who are the casualties of this war.

Anti-vaping groups have made it clear that no amount of evidence will ever convince them that e-cigarettes are a safe and effective alternative for smokers. They will continue spreading lies and scaring smokers like Jensen into thinking that they’re better off sticking to smoking than switching to e-cigarettes.

For her sake, I hope Jensen is right and that she’s able to fully quit smoking, but I’m not optimistic. The rates of successful quit attempts are abysmally low, giving her about a 50/50 chance. Instead of reducing her risks by about 95% as she had done by switching to vaping, Jensen now has about the same chance of quitting smoking as she does of dying from smoking. If anti-vaping advocates really cared about public health they would start telling the truth and let adults make their own informed decisions. But it seems they don’t. Or, perhaps, they just care more about being right than saving lives.