How Deceptive Science Becomes Anti-Vaping Propaganda

Sometimes bad science and lazy journalism combine to create a perfect storm of bad news for vapers… and smokers.

We’ve all seen it happen before. A study comes out with a flimsy, speculative conclusion and before all the sensible commentators get the chance to put it into context, it’s turned into scary headlines plastered across newspapers all over the world. Devoid of nuance and balance, it serves only to create and deepen the fear of vaping.

Corrections and clarifications come later, but by the time they gain any traction, it’s already too late. The “fact” has seeped its way into the public consciousness and becomes another reason people think vaping is “as bad as smoking,” which a disturbing number of people do.

This process happened again with a recent study about supposed DNA damage caused by e-cigarette vapor. The reports from the U.K. and U.S. declaring vaping as substantially safer than smoking have quickly been eclipsed by this recent piece of scaremongering nonsense.

The paper and the media furor that followed is a great example of just how this merry-go-round works, and looking at it in detail offers some insight into what exactly goes wrong so often, and why so many people are terribly confused about vaping.

The methodology: what the study actually did

The researchers looked at the effects of e-cigarette vapor on mice, as well as testing the impact of nicotine and a nitrosamine (one of a group of carcinogens found in tobacco, and in much smaller quantities in vaping devices, vape juice and other nicotine products) on human cells in a dish. The paper focused specifically on DNA damage from vaping, with a comparison to filtered air but no comparison to smoking. Since it’s well-known that DNA damage is linked to cancer, this isn’t at all an unreasonable thing to study.

But there are crucial limitations to this approach. There is a big difference between a mouse and a human – which shouldn’t surprise you – so while mice are a good starting point for research, results from them are far from conclusive. The same goes for cells in a petri dish. While you have those same kinds of cells in your body, you have a lot more than that in your body, so you can’t just assume that the reactions you see in a petri dish will tell you exactly what will happen in a living human body.

The deceptive presentation of the results

The results showed that mice exposed to e-cigarette vapor had more DNA damage in their bladders, lungs, and hearts than mice not exposed to vapor. The body’s mechanism for repairing the lung damage was less effective too. The results on human cells were similar: nicotine and the nitrosamine caused DNA damage in the lung and bladder cells. As with the mice, the combination impacted the body’s mechanism for fixing the damage too.

They present the results alongside a theory that nicotine is converted to nitrosamines in the body when consumed, and so try to direct the blame at nicotine itself. This is highly questionable, because nicotine itself is not known to be a carcinogen, and other studies of nicotine users show no link with cancer. But aside from that there are no major issues with the results obtained in the study as presented so far.

Then the authors say, “It is therefore possible that E-cigarette smoke may contribute to lung and bladder cancer, as well as heart disease, in humans.”

This is where things get bad. Firstly, they say “e-cigarette smoke” throughout the paper, which is factually incorrect and clearly misleading. Smoke is produced from combustion, and vaping involves no combustion. The clue is in the name: vapor (or technically aerosol) is not smoke.




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