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Flawed vaping studies: What to watch out for

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Fight vaping misinformation  through education. Learn how to defeat pseudo-science.

If a journalist misrepresents the facts in showbiz, then reputations are bruised. But if a journalist misrepresents a study about public health, then people’s lives are on the line. In a recent blog, we saw how one scientist is using e-cigarettes to help smokers lower their blood pressure. That’s an excellent health benefit, one that could help smokers in the real world avoid heart attacks and strokes. But in the same week, we saw many national newspapers report on a different study, one that simply speculated about the potential health risks of e-cigarettes without actually studying any of the people that used them. How many current smokers with high blood pressure have been frightened off switching to vaping thanks to inconclusive scare-stories? Even one is too many, and I suspect that the real number is far higher. vaping studies It’s obvious now that we can’t count on the scientists or the media to cover vaping objectively. It’s time for vapers to learn how to read studies so that we can spot junk science early on.

1. Does what the scientists say match what they actually found?

Science doesn’t tell us whether something is healthy or unhealthy. Science simply gives us some evidence that may sway us one way or the other. But the scientists that collect the evidence are not infallible — sometimes they make mistakes. Even worse, sometimes the evidence says one thing yet the scientists say another. In the infamous #SanDiegoGate vaping study, human cells were doused in e-cigarette vapour and measured for signs of damage. After eight weeks, the researchers were able to find some signs of damage, leading one scientist to write in a press release that e-cigarette vapour might be “no safer than smoking tobacco”. This misleading statement made headlines around the world.   But the scientists didn’t tell the newspapers the whole story. They also tested humans cells by exposing them to cigarette smoke — but their research was cut short because all of the human cells exposed to cigarette smoke died in under twenty-four hours. In other words, they said that e-cigarettes may be more harmful to human cells, but what they found actually showed the complete opposite. Fortunately, some observers noticed the mistake. Adam Jacobs called out the Daily Telegraph’s flawed coverage of the story as the “most dangerous, irresponsible, and ill-informed piece of health journalism of 2015." A correction was issued, one that made it clear how lethal cigarette smoke is. But you can’t unring the bell — perhaps millions of people read the misleading headlines yet only a handful saw the correction.

2. Do the numbers add up?

During the Second World War, British secret services went undercover equipped with a cyanide pill. This lethal pill enabled agents to commit suicide rather than fall into enemy hands. It killed them in minutes. You may be aware that apple seeds contain cyanide. But because the amount of cyanide is so small, it’s extremely unlikely that you could ever eat enough apple seeds to poison yourself — there’s a reason that apples are not widely feared. The point is that highly toxic chemicals are more common than you might imagine. We find them in the air we breathe, the drinks we consume and even in our own bloodstream. A toxic chemical is only problematic if there is enough of it to pose a health risk. A recent Harvard study found a chemical called diacetyl in some e-cigarette flavorings. Diacetyl occurs naturally in apples, beans and butter and is used as a flavouring because it is delicious. But diacetyl is also linked (inconclusively) to a particularly nasty disease called popcorn lung. The media reported the finding of diacetyl in some e-liquid brands as evidence that e-cigarettes may cause popcorn lung. But the real question is how much diacetyl is present in e-cigarette vapor, and is it enough to pose a health risk? Dr. Michael Siegel measured the amount of diacetyl in some e-liquids and found that the amount of diacetyl present was truly tiny — we’re talking cyanide in apples levels here. But he did find that regular tobacco cigarettes contained a sizeable amount of diacetyl. In fact, his research showed that the daily exposure to diacetyl from smoking was 750 times higher than the daily exposure to diacetyl from vaping. This means that by swapping to e-cigarettes, vapers can drastically reduce their diacetyl intake.

3. Does the study examine real-world vaping behaviour?

If you take something and use it in a way that it is not intended to be used, then you will probably run into danger somewhere along the line. For instance, just because you could theoretically drink boiling water out of a kettle doesn’t mean that drinking tea which has been left to cool is an unhealthy thing to do. If you overheat your vape pen, you can create the dreaded “dry hit” — a bitter tasting inhale that no sane vaper would ever intentionally go after. But researchers decided to study the dry hit and found that a dry hit contains high levels of formaldehyde. However, in publishing the research, the scientists did not make it clear that their study did not reflect what vapers were actually doing, leading to once again to ridiculous headline land.    Proper research showed that e-cigarettes do not produce significant amounts of formaldehyde in real-world conditions, and that regular vaping involves significantly less -aldehydes than regular smoking. This isn’t the only time that scientists have misunderstood vaping technology. In other experiments scientists have studied concentrated flavourings rather than actual flavourings, got sub-ohm vaping completely wrong and blatantly ignored the manufacturer’s dosage recommendations. Flawed vaping studies will continue to be published blindly by the newspapers. It’s up to us to educate ourselves on the science.

The bottom line is you can’t trust a study just because it is a ‘study’ and you certainly can’t trust media reporting on a given study. The only course of action is to read the study for yourself… or stay tuned to the Electric Tobacconist blog ;)