The misleading information being spread to the public by vaping opponents, including prominent health agencies like federal, state, and local health departments, has become out of control. It threatens to do immense public health damage by protecting cigarette sales at the expense of a much safer alternative - electronic cigarettes - and at the same time it also threatens the reputation of public health agencies.
Today, I highlight four examples of misinformation about electronic cigarettes from vaping opponents, representing four levels of health groups: international, national, state, and local.
World Health Organization:
Vaping does not help people stop smoking
The World Health Organization (WHO) is waging an all-out war on electronic cigarettes, which is ironically helping to protect real cigarettes from what otherwise could have been immense competition from a much safer product. The WHO could hardly be doing the cigarette companies around the world any greater favor. Recently, a WHO report prepared for the Conference of the Parties (COP-7) meeting concluded that vaping does not help people stop smoking. Furthermore, the head of the convention secretariat made clear her opinion that electronic cigarettes "should not be promoted widely."
According to an article in The Guardian, Anna Gilmore, professor of public health at the University of Bath and the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies, stated: "The tobacco industry uses e-cigarettes to claim it is committed to
harm reduction, but meanwhile it continues to engage in harm
maximisation by spending millions to promote tobacco and oppose any
policy that would reduce its use."
How ironic that Professor Gilmore is attacking the tobacco industry for opposing "any policy that would reduce" tobacco use, while at the very same time (and in the same sentence) she is vigorously opposing one of the most promising strategies ever for reducing tobacco use (vaping). In the same sentence, she condemns the tobacco industry for not being "committed to harm reduction," yet expresses her own opposition to harm reduction.
The rest of the story is that it is not the tobacco industry that is holding up the use of harm reduction as a widespread tobacco control strategy. In fact, the tobacco companies are largely supporting a harm reduction approach, and they are vigorously promoting vaping products. On the other hand, it is the tobacco control community and health agencies like the WHO that truly are holding up harm reduction through their opposition to promoting vaping as a much safer alternative to smoking.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Reductions in the amount of cigarettes smoked daily by smokers represent great progress, but not among vapers
The director of CDC - Dr. Tom Frieden - was quoted recently as stating: "The pack-a-day smoker has become more and more rare. What we've seen is a shift from heavier smokers to lighter smokers.
We're seeing really good progress."
What Dr. Frieden failed to reveal was that one major reason for recent declines in cigarette consumption is that millions of smokers are switching - in whole or in part - to vaping. And even those who switch only in part (so-called "dual users") are greatly improving their health if they cut down substantially on the amount they smoke. They are also reducing their level of smoking addiction which makes it easier for them to quit in the future. There is no question that the widespread use of electronic cigarettes, while strongly opposed by Dr. Frieden and the CDC - is contributing to declines in the amount smoked daily by smokers. Thus, the CDC is hindering the very "progress" that it claims to support.
The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center
We have no idea whether vaping is any safer than smoking
According to a statement from the deputy director of the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, we have no idea whether vaping is any safer than smoking: "There is minimal data available regarding the direct health effects of
e-cig use or vaping, but these products have gained rapid popularity
among existing smokers and non-smokers alike, including young adults. We are concerned that people assume these products have
fewer negative health effects as compared with cigarettes and other
tobacco products. The reality is that they are still a tobacco product
and people are still inhaling potentially harmful chemicals. They should
not be considered a 'safer' option until science has the opportunity to
catch up with the consumer market."
To further emphasize his statement that we have no idea whether smoking is any more hazardous than vaping, the deputy director said: "We have no idea where in the spectrum these are, in terms of safety. Are they like cigarettes, or nothing like cigarettes?"
It is disturbing to me that a comprehensive cancer center that every day sees the devastation to people's health and lives caused by smoking is unable to conclude that smoking is any more hazardous than vaping, despite scores of studies demonstrating the relative safety of vaping compared to smoking. Are you serious? Anyone who takes an even cursory look at the scientific evidence will tell you that there is no question that vaping is much safer than smoking. Even Stan Glantz - a vaping opponent - acknowledges that there is no question vaping is safer than smoking.
Knox County Health Department (Knoxville, Tennessee)
Vaping is not healthier than smoking
According to a "fact sheet" from the Knox County Health Department: "Vaping devices are often marketed as the “smarter” or “healthier” alternative to smoking. The literature has yet to prove this claim. ... There is no proof that they are “safer” or “healthier” than smoking, or if they pose different or additional risk."
A public health department should not be telling the public in 2016 that there is no proof that smoking is any more hazardous than vaping. Even the tobacco companies themselves aren't saying this. In fact, the tobacco companies are telling the truth and acknowledging that vaping is a safer alternative to smoking. It seems only to be health agencies that are still denying the science on vaping and smoking.
The Rest of the Story
For years we attacked the tobacco companies for misleading the public about the health effects of smoking. Now we are doing exactly the same thing. But I don't believe that it is unacceptable for the tobacco industry to mislead people while it's acceptable for us to do it. We need to be beyond reproach in our dissemination of information, and especially recommendations, to the public. A fear that vaping might spread does not justify deception of the public. Honesty is the best policy. In a political climate that is full of dishonesty, I think the last place we need more of it is in public health.