“If you thought you already had a good contender for ‘most dangerous, irresponsible, and ill-informed piece of health journalism of 2015’,” writes The Stats Guy, “then I’m sorry to tell you that it has been beaten into second place at the last minute.”
He is referring to an article penned by Sarah Knapton in the Telegraph titled E-cigarettes are no safer than smoking tobacco, scientists warn. One where she goes on to write: “Cells exposed to the e-cigarette vapour showed several forms of damage, including DNA strand breaks, which can lead to cancer.”
But Knapton isn’t alone.
Kasmira Gander, in the Independent, submitted a piece stating: “Vaping 'no better' than smoking regular cigarettes.” And Tim Radford in the Guardian: “E-cigarettes may be 'no better' than regular cigarettes.” And the original press agency piece simply regurgitated in the Mail: “E-cigarette vapour 'can kill human cells'.” We could go on, but you probably get the point – without a scintilla of questioning or circumspection, the British media lapped up the misinformation being fed to them.
Stats Guy continues: “There are such crushing levels of stupid in this article it’s hard to know where to start. But perhaps I’ll start by pointing out that a detailed review of the evidence on vaping by Public Health England, published earlier this year, concluded that e-cigarettes are about 95% less harmful than smoking.”
News Medical also covered the research from the San Diego team. "There haven't been many good lab studies on the effects of these products on actual human cells," they report Doctor Jessica Wang-Rodriquez saying. But then there are still the same number even though this has been added to the canon!
Of course, News Medical didn’t cover the research either as they were just one more outlet reprinting the message Pharma wanted to get over to the public – that of ‘Be Scared! Don’t use electronic cigarettes – use our nicotine replacement products.’ Whereas it might be possible to blame scientific illiteracy within the journalistic community it is impossible to attribute that to a medical journal.
The researchers did something and it harmed a human cell culture in a petri dish, this is fact. What it doesn’t do is move our understanding forward on how vapour impacts on the lining of the lungs because it is a lab study. Neither do the researchers care about factoring in the relative risk compared to smoking. So while it has probably created numerous clicks onto websites and generated income for newspapers and the research team, we are little better off for knowledge. In fact the only thing we know for sure is that when Wang-Rodriquez says "Based on the evidence to date I believe they are no better than smoking regular cigarettes," then it’s clear she hasn’t looked at the evidence.