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5 Live Investigates

“5 Live Investigates” carried out an investigation into shops selling eliquids to teens, and launched a largely hysterical attack on vaping

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“5 Live Investigates” is a show presented by Adrian Goldberg. The BBC claims that this show represents “cutting edge investigative journalism”, yet Sunday’s peek at teen vaping proved to be anything but. The radio debate swiftly progressed from facts to hysterical, unsubstantiated nonsense by the presenter and his pharmacy studio guest.

In 2016 it became illegal to buy vaping products for under-16s.

“Vaping has been heralded as the most effective way for people to quit smoking,” writes the BBC. “But concerns have been raised increasing numbers of children are trying e-cigarettes, and that could lead them to take up smoking cigarettes.”

In the accompanying video, a young girl is shown making test purchases on behalf of Camden’s Trading Standards department, “to see if shops would break the law and sell nicotine products to a 16-year-old girl.”

The girl told the BBC: “The lady asked me how old I was and she wasn’t going to give it [Aquavape Strawberry 10ml/18mg] to me. She asked her manager or someone, and he said ‘no’. And then I started to walk away and he told me to come back and he sold it to me. He told me to hide it and walk away.”

It should be pointed out that the shops failing to make proper checks and uphold the law were newsagents and not the specialist vape stores in Camden such as UKecigstore or The London Vape Company.

“The penalties for this is up to a fine of £5000 and/or a prison sentence of up to three years,” said Dave Hunt, Camden Trading Standards. Just like the problem with underage teens being able to access alcohol and tobacco, this problem falls squarely on the shoulders of disreputable convenience stores – but is being apportioned to the entire vaping industry.

Hunt confirmed that the strike rate of 1 in 3 shops being prepared to sell to underage buyers was consistent with what Trading Standards had seen in Camden over an 18 month period.

The video was produced as part of the 5 Live Investigates exploration into the world of teen vaping, and broadened out the access to eliquids to include other supposed dangers.

“With respect to adolescents, the evidence is still that [vaping] is probably still a good thing” - Professor Mark Conner

Adrian Goldberg cherry-picked a study from 2017, from Professor Mark Conner at the University of Leeds, which was presented as finding that, “children who tried vaping were four times more likely to try a cigarette.”

Conner said: “The national statistics says that a quarter of 11-15 year olds will have tried e-cigarettes; our research into 13-14 year olds found that 20% had tried e-cigarettes. There is quite a bit of evidence in the US…and our research in Scotland…overall, about 9% had tried e-cigarettes had gone on to smoke.”

He claimed that his research was very similar to other similar studies around the world. Goldberg used this to express his concern that children being attracted into smoking via vaping countered any benefit accrued from getting adults away from tobacco addiction and related harm.

Conner told him that though the evidence might look like that, the truth maybe different: “The evidence is mixed. The national statistics show that although vaping is going up, regular smoking in adolescents is coming down – so it could be that we’re seeing something that isn’t a causal relationship; it’s not that vaping causes smoking. Or it could be that this simply hasn’t fed through to the national statistics yet.”

Goldberg harped back to some anecdotal evidence from speaking to a couple of teenagers to justify fears about teen vaping.

It should be remembered that Conner recently told the parliamentary select committee: “With respect to adolescents, the evidence is still that [vaping] is probably still a good thing.”

Goldberg said the 5Live team bought six “vaping oils” online, “without any age check – most of them coming with nicotine.” He didn’t name the online stores but all of the reputable juice vendors implemented age checks prior to the Tobacco Products Directive being adopted in the UK.

Which meant it was time to talk about the packaging and flavours – because “the packaging looks like food or drink products and might tempt young children to swallow the contents.”

Again, Goldberg failed to provide any real evidence of this being an actual problem – so what was the point in raising it if not to just elevate unfounded fears?

The show managed to find “Sam” moaning about sweet cigarettes being banned (because they apparently encouraged children to smoke), a bloke called “Dave” complaining that there are five shops in the space of quarter of a mile and near to three academy schools, and “Tara” saying how her 10-yr old nephew has announced on holiday his intention to take up vaping when he’s 16.

The hysteria bandwagon was well and truly rolling in the quest for audience ratings. Quick, time for a balancing comment: “It’s undoubtedly helped tens of thousands of adults to give up smoking,” said the presenter, shame Goldberg didn’t say “millions”, “but we’ve heard the evidence today that young people are being lured into smoking after experimenting with vapes.”

No, Goldberg, you didn’t offer up any evidence and Professor Mark Conner told the opposite is happening on a national level.

“The anecdotes are one thing but the overall data is telling us a different story” - Hazel Cheeseman, ASH UK

Hazel Cheeseman, ASH UK: “There’s undeniably a relationship between vaping and smoking, but that’s different to saying that vaping is leading to more young people are taking up smoking. I don’t think the evidence supports that at the moment.”

“What’s more likely is that these are young people that are likely to try things anyway. These are the kids who are more likely to use alcohol, or illicit drugs, or to have sex. These are the kids who are vulnerable to trying stuff.”

“The anecdotes are one thing but the overall data is telling us a different story. We need to keep our concern in proportion.”

No matter what replies Hazel gave Goldberg, he kept pounding away with the fear agenda. She informed him that the issue is with Trading Standards officers not having sufficient resources to implement the current laws on under-age sales, but despite that there is still no issue surrounding statistically significant numbers of teens progressing onto smoking. So he went for a different approach.

“We’ve heard young people, and we’ve bought ourselves, vaping eliquids that taste of cookies and milk, one that tasted of Skittles – a kid’s sweet,” railed Goldberg. “Those products appear to be targeted at young people.”

“Flavours are an important part of how vaping appeals to adult smokers,” Cheeseman responded. “Every flavour that is sweet isn’t being targeted to young people, those sweet flavours are there to appeal to adults as well.”

Sandra Gidley from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, 21 years as a community pharmacist and former Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Romsey from 2000 to 2010, has frequently attacked vaping. She is prone to parroting the American tobacco control stance in the media, and continued to do so on the show.

Gidley persisted on interrupting John Dunne, representing the UK Vaping Industry Association. “Unbelievable,” she mocked, as Dunne discounted the study from Leeds or the FDA that portrayed there to be an issue with teen vaping. “There’s a lot of heads being buried in sand.”

She complained that the tobacco industry is not given a platform on the radio – and expressed disgust that the vaping industry is allowed to defend itself. “There is strong evidence to show that if children vape first they are more likely to smoke.”

“…and there’s a lot of rubbish being talked about these products being 95% safer. So what has shocked me most about listening to the debate today (she clearly didn’t bother listening to Hazel Cheeseman or Professor Mark Conner), is the complete denial of the emerging evidence that these products are dangerous.”

“We may have removed tar from these products,” she continues, conflating tobacco cigarettes with vaping, “but people are still inhaling products like formaldehyde, which are known carcinogens. So, please, let’s get real about this.”

Evidently, the one thing Gidley and Goldberg aren’t going to do is “get real” about harm reduction or the research surrounding it because then “Dave from Cheltenham” is quoted as whining about flavoured tobacco products. The pair of them continued to berate and heckle John Dunne.

Gidley finished off with an outright and uncontested lie about smoking cessation and vaping. It’s shocking how poor the BBC acts at times, and this show was a despicable attempted to cover a product vital to reducing harm to millions of smokers.

Professor Thicket was given plenty of time to present his debunked University of Birmingham study. No qualifying opinion, no contesting his statements, just another portrayal of vaping being exceptionally dangerous to lungs.

“Mmm, interesting stuff there,” was the limit to Goldberg’s input.

"Often with these surveys, we’re talking about very small numbers of young people" - Martin Dockrell

Public Health England’s Martin Dockrell was the final guest, he said: “The growing consensus is that [vaping] is much safer than smoking – the BMA, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the…”

Goldberg launches, unlike when Thicket was speaking. The bias was disgusting.

“Hang on,” pleaded Dockrell. “We always knew that the regulations weren’t going to be perfect first time, so we said right at the start that we are going to review them.”

Goldberg made an ignorant plea for “flavourless vapes, without the attractive smells and tastes associated with them. It would still work as a smoking cessation product.”

Dockrell pointed out that adults need flavours for vaping to be successful. Then, when pressed on the numbers of teens taking up smoking, he revealed that he’d already informed Goldberg’s researcher on Friday that the real numbers are being confused by the percentages Goldberg insisted on using all show.

“You talk about 17% going on to smoke – but that’s not 17% of the 2000 [children in the University of Leeds survey], that’s 17% of whoever tried e-cigarettes. So, in fact, often with these surveys, we’re talking about very small numbers of young people.”

“As Professor Conner pointed out, his data doesn’t show that they’re going on to smoke regularly, but that they’re going on to experiment with smoking. How much more likely are they [going to smoke]? Well, as Professor Conner tried to explain, the kids who are much more likely to vape are the kids who are much more likely to smoke – and the kids who are much less likely to go on to smoke, they account for a tiny proportion.”

“From the US study you quoted: from 900 young people, of those 18 had tried vaping and hadn’t smoked. Of those 18, 6 had gone on to start to smoke…”

But Goldberg had heard enough because it didn’t fit in with his viewpoint and cut Martin Dockrell off. Maybe the next ‘5 Live Investigates could be dedicated to uncovering the prejudice in some radio presenters when it comes to harm reduction?

Dave Cross avatar

Dave Cross

Journalist at POTV
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Dave is a freelance writer; with articles on music, motorbikes, football, pop-science, vaping and tobacco harm reduction in Sounds, Melody Maker, UBG, AWoL, Bike, When Saturday Comes, Vape News Magazine, and syndicated across the Johnston Press group. He was published in an anthology of “Greatest Football Writing”, but still believes this was a mistake. Dave contributes sketches to comedy shows and used to co-host a radio sketch show. He’s worked with numerous vape companies to develop content for their websites.

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