Monday, March 28, 2016

CVS Health Tells Public that Smoking is No More Dangerous than Vaping

On its Twitter feed last week, CVS Health informed the public that smoking is no more dangerous than vaping.

Here's the tweet: 

"They say e-cigs aren't as bad. They said that about light cigarettes too. Learn the facts about e-cigs from @TobaccoFreeKids & help us #BeTheFirst #tobaccofree gen"

Clearly, this statement implies that e-cigarettes are as harmful as tobacco cigarettes, even though they contain no tobacco and involve no combustion, thereby producing no smoke.

The Rest of the Story

Unfortunately, CVS Health has disseminated false information to the public. It is not true that vaping is just as hazardous as smoking. There is abundant scientific evidence that vaping is in fact much, much safer than smoking. Even scientists who are decidedly opponents of vaping acknowledge that fact. Professor Stan Glantz, who is very well-respected in the tobacco control community, has stated unequivocally that electronic cigarettes are much safer than real cigarettes.

Comparing statements that e-cigarettes aren't as harmful as cigarettes to Big Tobacco's historical claims about light cigarettes is fraudulent. Essentially, CVS Health is accusing me of scientific misconduct, since I have published research stating that vaping is not as harmful as smoking. Before making such an insinuation, I would hope that CVS Health has sufficient evidence to back up its claim. However, there is no evidence to back up the claim and there is strong evidence to refute the claim that e-cigarettes are just as harmful as cigarettes.

In fact, Dr. Riccardo Polosa and colleagues recently released a study finding that smokers with asthma who switch to e-cigarettes experience a significant improvement in both their respiratory symptoms and their measured lung function. The authors conclude that switching from smoking to vaping can "reverse harm from tobacco smoking in asthma patients who smoke."

CVS Health appears to attempt to back up its claim by linking to a fact sheet from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. However, nowhere in the fact sheet does it suggest that e-cigarettes are as harmful as conventional cigarettes. Moreover, the fact sheet makes it clear that the opposite is true, stating that "e-cigarettes could benefit public health if they help significantly reduce the number of people who use conventional cigarettes and die of tobacco-related disease." The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is concerned about the effectiveness of e-cigarettes in helping smokers to quit, not the lack of any health benefit to smokers who do quit using these products.

This deceptive tweet from CVS Health could do significant public health damage. Not only does it undermine the public's appreciation of the health hazards of smoking, but it also may discourage many smokers who might otherwise quit using e-cigarettes from doing so, and it may cause many former smokers who vape to go back to smoking. After all, if vaping is as bad as smoking, then you might as well enjoy the real thing, no?

If the goal is to create a tobacco-free generation, then vaping products may well play a critical role. We are not going to achieve a tobacco-free generation simply by discouraging kids from smoking and encouraging smokers to quit. We've been doing that for decades, and while we've made tremendous progress, there are still 40 million adult smokers in the U.S. and 1.5 million youth smokers. What could make a severe dent in smoking rates is the development of a relatively safe non-tobacco alternative product that could take the place of cigarettes for the millions of people who continue to be addicted to smoking and for the 1.4 million youth who experiment with cigarettes each year.

In other words, with the misinformation that CVS Health is putting out, they are doing more to prevent movement towards a tobacco-free generation than to promote it.

The only thing mitigating the potential harm from this deception is the many responses from vapers who are correcting the claim by noting that vaping is actually much safer than smoking. But it is time for CVS Health itself to issue a retraction and correction.

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