In an article published in the Summer 2018 issue of the Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health Magazine, two researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health are denying that smoking is known to be any more hazardous than vaping.
According to the article, Dr. Ana Maria Rule, an assistant professor in the the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering, argued that: "Even if vaping proves safer than smoking, that's still a long way from a gold stamp for their safety." This of course implies that we don't currently know that vaping is any safer than smoking. In turn, this means the professor's claim is that we don't currently know that smoking is any more harmful than vaping.
In the same article, Dr. Joanna Cohen, a professor and director of the Institute for Global Tobacco Control, is quoted as stating: "They are likely safer than continuing to smoke combustible cigarettes, but without the long-term studies, we just don’t know." Thus, Dr. Cohen is claiming that we just don't know whether smoking is any more hazardous than vaping.
The Rest of the Story
This type of denialism is something you might expect from the tobacco industry, not from public health researchers. But ironically, even the tobacco industry hasn't sunk to the level of claiming that their combustible cigarettes, which kill more than 400,000 Americans each year and more than 6 million people worldwide, may be no more hazardous than devices which contain no tobacco and involve no combustion.
In fact, all the major tobacco companies have in fact admitted that combustible tobacco products are far more dangerous than non-combusted products that don't even contain any tobacco. And even Dr. Stan Glantz, who is about as opposed to e-cigarettes as one can be, acknowledges that e-cigarettes are safer than real ones. Perhaps more objectively, the National Academy of Sciences stated that there is "conclusive evidence" that vaping is safer than smoking.
What almost nobody in tobacco control is acknowledging is that most of the major brands of electronic cigarettes that are sold at retail stores in the U.S. and which account for well over half of the market share have been tested and no detectable levels of any dangerous chemicals have been identified in the aerosol. This includes the major cigarette company brands, such as Mark Ten and Vuse, as well as Juul and several other leading brands made by the largest independent vape manufacturers. With these brands, even the potential health effects we are talking about are mild, acute respiratory and cardiovascular irritation. There is no evidence that vapers are exposed continuously enough for these acute changes to result in chronic lung or heart disease, but even if the risk is slightly increased, there is no way that it could equate to the risks of active smoking.
The problem with this denialism is not merely that it is spreading misinformation. The problem is that this is exactly the kind of false propaganda that is deterring many smokers from trying to quit smoking using vaping products and is causing some ex-smokers to return to smoking. If we aren't sure that vaping is any safer than smoking, then why bother quitting smoking using e-cigarettes? You might as well just keep on smoking. And if you've already quit using e-cigarettes, then what's the point of staying on e-cigarettes? Why not just go back to smoking, since we're not sure that it's any more dangerous than vaping?
If a physician were to give the same advice to a patient, it would be grounds for malpractice. Can you imagine doctors discouraging their smoking patients from switching to e-cigarettes because they are not sure it is any safer? Can you imagine doctors telling ex-smoking patients that they might as well resume smoking because they're not sure that their vaping is any better for their health than smoking?
Whether they realize it or not, this is precisely the effect statements like those being made by these Johns Hopkins researchers are having on the public. In fact, several national surveys have demonstrated that the public is largely misinformed about the relative hazards of smoking vs. vaping. And it is this misperception that has stunted what otherwise could have been a much more substantial shift from smoking to vaping in this country. In other words, this isn't just a question of misleading the public. It's a question of saving lives, or failing to do so.
Hopefully, these researchers will publish a correction or retraction of these claims so that we can begin the process of restoring some semblance of a science base in the field of tobacco control.