Thursday, January 14, 2016

In Press Release "Correction," VA Researcher Reiterates that Smoking May Be No More Hazardous than Vaping

In response to complaints (see my post here) about its press release and media coverage of a recent study on the cytotoxicity of electronic cigarette vapor, the Veterans Affairs (VA) Research Communications department issued a "correction."

Briefly, an article in the January 2016 issue of the journal Oral Oncology reported the results of a laboratory study of the effect on epithelial cell cultures of exposure to tobacco smoke compared to e-cigarette vapor. The study concluded that: "E-cigarette vapor, both with and without nicotine, is cytotoxic to epithelial cell lines and is a DNA strand break-inducing agent." 

However, instead of reporting the actual findings of the study, the press release which explains the study implications to the media states that the main conclusion of the study was that the use of electronic cigarettes is no safer than smoking. According to the press release:

"The overarching question is whether the battery-operated products are really any safer than the conventional tobacco cigarettes they are designed to replace. Wang-Rodriquez doesn't think they are. 'Based on the evidence to date,' she says, 'I believe they are no better than smoking regular cigarettes.'"

As I pointed out: "This study involved laboratory testing only. The effect of e-cigarette aerosol was examined on cell cultures, which by definition have been altered so that they are unlike actual human cells. The results of studies on cells in laboratory cultures cannot necessarily be extrapolated to clinically meaningful effects in humans. In fact, this point is readily acknowledged by the study authors. The authors also acknowledge that the dose of e-cigarette aerosol to which the cells were exposed was far above that experienced in real life, which further limits the conclusions that can be drawn about the effects of vaping on actual humans. ... It is difficult for me to explain this story by anything other than a profound bias on the part of the researchers against electronic cigarettes. This is not objective science. Nor is it honest presentation and discussion of study results. Most importantly, it is irresponsible dissemination of misleading and unsupported scientific conclusions to the public."

The day after I posted my commentary, the VA communications office responded by posting this "correction":

"Contrary to what was stated or implied in much of the news coverage resulting from this news release, the lab experiments did not find that e-cigarette vapor was as harmful to cells as cigarette smoke. In fact, one phase of the experiments, not addressed in the news release, found that cigarette smoke did in fact kill cells at a much faster rate. However, because similar cell-damage mechanisms were observed as the result of both e-vapor and regular cigarette smoke, Dr. Wang-Rodriguez asserts, based on the evidence from the study, that e-cigarettes are not necessarily a healthier alternative to smoking regular cigarettes. As stated in the journal paper and the news release, further research is needed to better understand the actual long-term health effects of e-cigarettes in humans." 

The Rest of the Story

The unfortunate aspect of this supposed "corrective" statement is that rather than correct the most egregious and fallacious claim made in the press release, the response actually reiterates this false claim, once again asserting that smoking may be no more hazardous than vaping.

This is an absurd assertion, and there is abundant empirical evidence, including solid clinical evidence, that vaping is much safer than smoking. Even the cigarette companies acknowledge that smoking cigarettes is a much greater health hazard than using a tobacco-free electronic cigarette. And Dr. Stan Glantz, a strong anti-vaping advocate, has himself stated that vaping is much safer than smoking. This is a point that is not contested by any credible scientists.

Thus, the statement made by Dr. Wang-Rodriguez that smoking is not necessarily more hazardous than vaping is completely fallacious. What is surprising is that even after having time to think about the validity of the claim and the opportunity to clarify it, she chose to reiterate it instead. Thus, this can now be viewed as a deliberate attempt to deceive the public into thinking that e-cigarettes are as bad as real, tobacco cigarettes. Either that or this scientist has no clue what she is talking about.

If the latter is the case, the claim is equally egregious because if a researcher hasn't a clue about what they're talking about, they should not be making statements like that to the public. And they should never draw a conclusion based solely on their own single study, while ignoring the entire rest of the literature on the subject. Here, the researcher is not even interpreting the meaning of her own study correctly.

Look, I can always excuse someone, or an organization, for making a misstatement, or for speaking without having really given a subject great thought. Anyone can make such a mistake. However, the failure to correct that statement after the flaw is pointed out and there is plenty of time to re-assess the claim is not excusable.

Sadly, this false claim is going to cause significant public health harm by discouraging many smokers from quitting and by prompting many former smokers to return to smoking. This is not just a misstatement; it is a life and death matter.

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