Monday, July 31, 2023

University of Maryland Doctor Tells Public He's Not Sure Smoking is Any More Hazardous than Vaping

In an article published today by ABC News, a physician from the University of Maryland is quoted as telling the public that he isn't sure that smoking is any more hazardous than vaping.

According to the article: "'We just cannot make a conclusion that it [vaping] is safer than cigarettes,' said Dr. Jason Rose, a Pulmonary and Critical Care Physician who is also the Associate Professor of Medicine and Associate Dean for Innovation & Physician Science at The University of Maryland."  

Of course, stating that you're not sure if vaping is safer than cigarettes is equivalent to saying that you're not sure smoking is any more hazardous to your health than vaping. This is obviously a ridiculous statement that is completely refuted by a multitude of scientific evidence as well as by the documented experiences of millions of ex-smokers who quit smoking by switching to vaping. Even the most vigorous opponents of e-cigarettes acknowledge that vaping is safer than smoking (as long as you are not engaging in dual use).

While the cardiovascular harms of e-cigarettes are probably moderately lower than smoking, the risks of cancer and COPD are astronomically lower. Many papers have documented the subjective and objective clinical improvement in respiratory function in smokers who quit smoking by switching to electronic cigarettes. Many papers have documented the much lower levels of carcinogens in e-cigarettes, some by actually measuring biomarkers in the blood or urine of smokers and vapers. 

Well, that is not the only guffaw in this article. In the same article, two other physicians strongly discourage smokers from quitting smoking with the use of e-cigarettes, even though e-cigarettes have been demonstrated to be the single most effective pharmacotherapeutic strategy for smoking cessation. 

According to the article: "Doctors are increasingly discouraging people from using e-cigarettes given the mounting evidence about the significant negative health impact of vaping-- even as a smoking cessation tool. For current smokers, 'there are other very powerful, safe and FDA approved interventions,' Dr. Petros Levounis, the President of the American Psychiatric Association and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said."

Another physician is quoted as stating that e-cigarettes "are not ideal and there are other options that are proven by science that are safe and effective." This physician also fails to inform the public that e-cigarettes have been documented in clinical trials to be significantly more effective than any of those other options for smoking cessation.

To add the final blow, the article suggests that e-cigarettes can cause severe lung damage, tying e-cigarettes to the EVALI outbreak of 2019: "But studies show that e-cigarettes may cause harm by affecting the whole body. A medical condition called EVALI – E-cigarette or Vaping-use Associated Lung Injury - not only causes damage to the lungs but can also cause issues in other organs' systems."

No e-cigarette has ever been shown to cause EVALI. As the article later notes (in perhaps the only accurate statement in the whole article): "A CDC evaluation found that ingredients associated mostly with illicit THC vaping products played a major role in the 2019 EVALI outbreak that peaked in September 2019."

The article goes on to quote the parent of a teenager who suffered from EVALI. The article infers that the teenager's harrowing experience and near-death hospital admission was due to the use of e-cigarettes, failing to disclose that--almost certainly--his condition was caused by his use of illicit, black market THC oils that were spiked with vitamin E acetate.

The Rest of the Story

I am incredulous. Never did I imagine that in 2023, I would still be writing blog posts about physicians lying to the public by telling them that smoking is no more hazardous than vaping. Nor did I imagine that I would still be writing blog posts about physicians and medical groups discouraging smokers from quitting smoking by switching to e-cigarettes, even though it has been proven to be the most effective strategy for smoking cessation (with the exception of cold turkey quitting) and data show that more than 4 million ex-smokers in the U.S. quit smoking successfully by switching completely to vaping.

The lack of progress in educating physicians and the public about the relative harms of smoking compared to vaping is tragic. As a result, the health and lives of tens of thousands of Americans are being put at risk because they falsely believe that there is no benefit to quitting smoking via switching to vaping. 

A large part of the blame goes directly to the CDC--and especially the Office on Smoking and Health (where I used to work)--which have repeatedly misled the public by mis-communicating the risks of smoking compared to vaping. It is a shame that the nation's leading prevention agency--and the office responsible for tobacco prevention specifically--have carried on a campaign of deception that is now carrying into its 14th year!


Friday, July 28, 2023

Great Article on the CDC's Misinformation Campaign About Electronic Cigarettes

A very well-researched and well-documented article on the CDC's misinformation campaign about electronic cigarettes by my friend and colleague over at Handwaving Freakoutery: "Real Talk About Nicotine: How CDC Propaganda Leads to Bad Medicine and Kills People."

Medical Journal Retracts Vaping Study for Political, Rather than Scientific Reasons

The journal BMC Public Health has announced that it will be retracting a paper it published last October which concluded that the use of electronic cigarettes has helped accelerate the decline in cigarette smoking. 

The study, entitled "Population-level counterfactual trend modelling to examine the relationship between smoking prevalence and e-cigarette use among US adults," analyzed U.S. population-based data on trends in e-cigarette consumption and smoking prevalence from approximately 8 years prior to when e-cigarettes became popular in the U.S. through 2019. The authors used adult cigarette prevalence trends from 1999-2009 to establish a baseline and then generated the counterfactual (what would have been expected in the absence of e-cigarettes) by continuing these trends through 2019. They then compared the predicted trend in smoking prevalence from 2010-2019 with the actual trend. 

They found major discrepancies between the predicted and observed prevalence of smoking, with smoking rates dropping much more rapidly than expected. The magnitude of the "excess" decline in smoking correlated highly with greater prevalence of e-cigarette use. Furthermore, discrepancies between expected and observed levels of smoking were greater among subgroups with higher levels of e-cigarette use: young adults, adult males, and non-Hispanic White adults. The article concluded that: "Population-level data suggest that smoking prevalence has dropped faster than expected, in ways correlated with increased e-cigarette use."

The data were obtained from the National Health Interview Surveys, which are publicly available. The authors are affiliated with Pinney Associates, which does consulting work for Juul, an e-cigarette company in which the tobacco company Altria has a 35% stake. The authors fully disclosed the funding for the study--which was provided by Juul--as well as their conflicts of interest (i.e., their consulting work for Juul) in the paper. 

Apparently, the journal received a letter to the editor complaining that the paper's conclusions were invalid and calling for its retraction for two reasons:

1. The assumption that e-cigarette prevalence was zero in 2010 is incorrect, as e-cigarettes were widely available in the U.S. going back to 2007.  

2. The paper was funded by Juul, which has a financial interest in the results of the paper. 

However, the authors provided a supplemental table in the paper showing that even if one eliminates the assumption that e-cigarette use was zero in 2010 and simply rely on survey-measured e-cigarette prevalence values, there is still a strong and significant correlation between the discrepancy between predicted and actual smoking and the prevalence of e-cigarette use for two subgroups: males and young adults (the two groups with the highest levels of e-cigarette use).

Additionally, the authors fully disclosed their funding and conflicts of interest which were known to the journal's editorial staff and the reviewers prior to the decision to accept the manuscript for publication. Moreover, this particular journal does not have a policy that precludes consideration of papers that are funded by the tobacco industry or for which the authors report conflicts of interest.

Despite these two critical facts, the journal nevertheless wrote a letter to the authors stating that it made the decision to retract the article. On July 18, the journal told the authors that their response to the letter to the editor was not sufficient to address the letter writer's concerns. The reason given by the journal for the retraction was as follows:

The assumption that e-cigarette prevalence was zero in 2010 is not supported, and although the sensitivity analysis showed that there was still a significant correlation between the magnitude of the discrepancy between predicted and observed smoking prevalence and the level of population e-cigarette use for males and young adults when this assumption was eliminated, the relationship between cigarette use and the smoking prevalence disparity among young adults is most likely due to e-cigarette marketing.

The pivotal argument in the letter is as follows (I bolded it because of its importance): "In fact, bodies of literature are emerging globally about the effect of the tobacco industry’s marketing campaigns aimed at younger generations, using social media and influencers, which are associated with an increase in uptake of e-cigarettes (and dual use of e-cigarettes and tobacco products) in younger age groups. In my opinion, the effect of this strategic marketing seems a much more likely explanation of the association between younger age and increased e-cigarette use found by Foxon et al. than that e-cigarettes are particularly effective at helping younger age groups quit smoking."

The letter stated the final reason for the retraction as: "After careful consideration, and in light of the EBM’s feedback, the journal has taken the decision to retract the article in line with COPE guidelines. Our investigation has concluded that since the paper’s conclusions are based on assumption of ‘0’ prevalence of e-cigarette use in 2010 the results are non-significant."

The Rest of the Story

There is no valid scientific basis for the retraction of this paper. The journal states that it is retracting the article because the assumption that e-cigarette prevalence was zero in 2010 renders its results invalid. However, the results do not rely on the assumption that smoking prevalence in 2010 was zero. In fact, when the authors made no assumptions at all about e-cigarette prevalence and simply used the survey data on e-cigarette prevalence, they found a gaping difference between predicted and observed smoking prevalence among young adults and among males and in both cases, the magnitude of this gaping difference was highly and significantly correlated with the prevalence of e-cigarette use. The authors also documented to the journal editors that even if they changed the main assumption so that e-cigarette prevalence was 0 back in 2006 or 2007 or 2008 or 2009, the results were essentially unchanged. 

Moreover, the validity of the paper's findings does not rely upon any assumptions about e-cigarette prevalence in the first place. The main finding of the paper is that there is a large discrepancy between predicted and observed smoking prevalence in the past decade, with observed smoking prevalence being substantially less than would have been expected based on pre-existing trends. And the magnitude of the discrepancy is greatest among males and young adults. There needs to be some explanation for these two findings. It is beyond refutation that one critical change that occurred during the past decade was that there was a dramatic increase in adult e-cigarette use and that this increase was most dramatic among males and among young adults. Thus, even without calculating any correlation between e-cigarette prevalence and the magnitude of the smoking prevalence discrepancies one can reasonably posit that the use of e-cigarettes is a likely explanation for the greater than expected declines in adult smoking. This is especially true given data from the NHIS suggesting that during the past decade, no fewer than 4 million adult smokers quit smoking successfully using e-cigarettes.

The journal editors simply dismissed the sensitivity analysis showing that the paper's findings are not dependent upon the assumption of 0 e-cigarette use in 2010. That analysis is presented within the paper itself, yet the editors dismiss it. And the primary reason they dismiss it is because they believe there is an alternative explanation for the correlation between e-cigarette use and the discrepancy in observed vs. predicted smoking prevalence among young adults. Specifically, the editor argues that this finding is explained by e-cigarette marketing, which resulted in increases in youth e-cigarette use. But that is no explanation at all. The only thing that e-cigarette marketing might explain is why there was an increase in youth vaping. In no way does that invalidate the finding that there is a gaping discrepancy between actual and expected smoking prevalence among young adults which correlates with the magnitude of e-cigarette use.   

Moreover, the paper also found that without making any assumption about 0 e-cigarette use in 2010, there was a gaping discrepancy in observed vs. predicted smoking among males in the United States that was correlated strongly and significantly with the magnitude of e-cigarette use. The journal editors do not provide any refutation of, or alternative explanation for this finding.

Importantly, the journal editors are also incorrect when they state that they are retracting the article "in line with COPE guidelines." The relevant COPE guideline states that a paper may be retracted only if the editors "have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of major error (eg, miscalculation or experimental error), or as a result of fabrication (eg, of data) or falsification (eg, image manipulation)." None of those is present in this case, and the editors do not contend that a major error, miscalculation, experimental error, fabrication of data, or falsification of data is present. Thus, the editors are not adhering to COPE guidelines at all.

Essentially, the paper is being retracted because the editors do not agree with the conclusion reached by the authors given the findings presented in the paper. This is not a valid reason to retract a paper. There are always alternative explanations for a paper's findings and if editors started retracting every such paper, they would be purging about 95% of the publications in their journals.

You, like me, may find this an egregious example of an attempt to purge the scientific literature of a paper that the editors, after the fact, have decided that they don't like the study findings. You may be wondering what is really behind this because the scientific explanation given falls flat on its face.

Well, the editor has given us a clue in another statement they make in the letter to the study authors explaining that a letter to the editor has been received. That statement, which quotes a WHO document, reads: 

"At the time of writing, the evidence is insufficient to recommend the use of ENDS as cessation devices at the population level."

This conclusion is not only irrelevant to the issues at hand, but it has the appearance of revealing the true reason for the editor's disdain for this paper which they accepted for publication. Apparently, the editor sides with the WHO in believing that electronic cigarettes should not be recommended for smoking cessation. In other words, the editor appears to have a disdain for electronic cigarettes themselves, and this appears to have translated into a disdain for the article reporting the dramatic and unprecedented effects of e-cigarettes on adult smoking cessation.

I therefore read this story as indicating that the paper was retracted for essentially political, rather than scientific reasons.

Monday, July 17, 2023

American Heart Association Still Refuses to Tell the Truth About EVALI and Makes No Specific Recommendation that Youth Avoid Vaping THC Products

In an American Heart Association (AHA) "scientific statement" published this week in the journal Circulation, the AHA continues to confuse the public about the so-called EVALI (e-cigarette or vaping-associated lung injury) outbreak that occurred in 2019, suggesting that it may be due to "flavoring agents," "viruses," or "bacteria" and that no specific agent has been identified as the cause. 

Despite the fact that vitamin E acetate was found in a miraculous 94% of bronchoalveolar lavage fluids of EVALI patients, that no putative contaminant has ever been found in a non-tainted nicotine-containing e-cigarette, that the outbreak subsided quickly after illicit drug makers removed vitamin E acetate from THC oils, and that not a single EVALI case was ever demonstrated to be attributable to a store-bought (i.e., legal) electronic cigarette, the AHA continues to cloud the public's mind about the outbreak, leaving open the hysterical claim that legal e-cigarettes may cause devastating and deadly lung disease.

Perhaps more troubling, the AHA fails to make any recommendation to educate youth about the dangers of using THC vaping products, to educate youths so that they understand that vaping THC does have potentially deadly risks, or to run any public education campaign to publicize the widely recognized conclusion of the FDA that EVALI was caused specifically by vitamin E acetate oil that was added as a thickening agent to THC black-market vaping products.

Instead, by continuing to obscure the connection between THC vaping and EVALI, the AHA suggests that EVALI may be caused by legal, store-bought, nicotine-containing e-cigarettes. This undermines the important public health message that youths need: do not vape black market THC vapes off the street (or from any source). Why is it that an organization that is supposedly committed to reducing heart and lung disease would refuse to warn youth about the dangers of vaping THC products? The only apparent explanation is that this would undermine the public hysteria created by the AHA and other groups about the links between e-cigarettes and severe lung disease.

In addition to its difficulty acknowledging the truth about the lack of evidence that legal e-cigarettes pose any risk of severe, life-threatening, acute lung injury, the AHA continues to repeat other hysterical claims, such as that e-cigarettes can cause popcorn lung. This despite the absence of any cases of bronchiolitis obliterans having been reported in any e-cigarette user, not to mention the lack of evidence that popcorn lung is a problem in actual, real cigarette smokers.

The Rest of the Story

The real clincher comes near the end of the article, when - after scaring the public about all the severe, acute and chronic lung diseases that can supposedly be caused by e-cigarettes, the AHA finally tells the truth, acknowledging that the actual science precludes them from validly going beyond the weak statement that: "claims that ENDS products present absolutely no health risks are false according to the limited, but growing, evidence available." 

So the rest of the story is that the best the AHA can muster up based on solid science is that e-cigarettes are not completely harmless! I could have told you that in 2007 when they were first introduced to the U.S. market and only a handful of safety studies had been conducted. 

So now, 17 years later and after millions of dollars have been spent trying to tie e-cigarette use to every possible adverse effect under the sun, the most that the AHA can say is that based on the limited evidence available, we can conclude that e-cigarettes are not 100% safe! 

The subterfuge here is so blatant and the contrast between the science-based statements and hysteria-based statements so vivid that one has to question the intent of the organization. Is it truly trying to save the lives of adolescents who are at the greatest risk, or is it trying to drum up as much possible hysteria about e-cigarettes in the minds of the public? 

I'll suggest one thing: if the true aim is to try to save the lives of adolescents who are at the greatest risk, any further confusion of the public about the fact that EVALI was due to illegal, black market, THC vapes is irresponsible. This generation of youth needs to be warned about the risks of vaping black market products they obtain from friends or off the street, especially those which contain THC. Hiding this message only puts them at the greatest risk of harm from vaping products.