Will we ever see an end to vaping related junk science?

Will we ever see an end to vaping related junk science?

Ever since e-cigarettes became mainstream back in 2012, there has been an underlying flow of anti-vaping scaremongering. In the past 12 months, the flow has become a flood! We wanted to debunk some of the most prolific vape related junk science that has hit the headlines recently.

E-cigarettes can be compared to marmite. For every person that loves them, you’ll find someone else that hates them. Although, when someone likes marmite, they are unlikely to be bombarded with stories about how their tasty toast topper is about to kill them. Furthermore, nobody is trying to ban marmite because of their dislike of the savoury spread. Granted, marmite isn’t 100% good for you (what is?), but it’s far better for you than, say, Nutella.

OK, I’ll stop with the marmite metaphor - you get my drift. As vapers, we’re constantly hearing horror stories about the approach we’ve chosen to keep of the ciggies. A few years back, the myths started pretty low key. Popcorn lung, formaldehyde in e-liquid, exploding vape batteries, etc… We debunked these myths, and more, back in 2018. In fact, these ridiculous claims have been rubbished so many times that vaping antagonists have been forced to up their game.

Vaping is now under attack from junk science

So next came the junk science; studies that support their biases are funded by anti-vaping groups and broadcast by anti-vaping media. The headlines became more inflammatory and disturbing. The research nearly always surfaces from America and focuses on four key claims:

  1. Vaping is as dangerous as smoking
  2. E-cigarettes don’t help people quit smoking
  3. The vaping industry markets to children
  4. Vaping is a gateway for non-smokers into using tobacco products

We wanted to explore some of the absurd junk science that has been broadcast to support these claims. First, let’s have a look at what junk science actually is.

What is junk science?

The expression junk science is used to describe scientific data, research, or analysis that is found to be flawed, or even fraudulent.

It conveys the suggestion that the research was driven by political, ideological, or financial motives. Rather than science that has been robustly supported and confirmed by multiple peer-reviewed studies, junk science is often coloured by the biases of the preferred outcome.

If scientific research is started with a view to the results supporting the desired conclusion, that’s junk science. In many cases related to vaping, the investigators seem to start with the result they want to see and work backwards from there.

If your research is funded by a corporation or political body that wants to convince people that vaping is as dangerous as smoking, then you’re going to find a way to validate that conclusion.

Vaping is as dangerous as smoking

We’re being fed the lie that vaping is just as dangerous as smoking, if not more so, on a daily basis. Scaremongering headlines scream the result of the latest specious study. Tobacco harm reduction experts are now spending most of their time disproving flawed research. Rebutting the firehose of fake news has pretty much become a full time job for them.

Take, for example, the research that supposedly proved that vapers were twice as likely to suffer a heart attack. This was quickly rubbished after it emerged that the heart attacks of their subjects had happened up to a decade before they started vaping! However, the headline that vaping causes heart attacks was out in the open.

Or how about the mice that got lung cancer - did you hear that one? The headlines read that “E-cigarettes definitely linked to cancer.” A rebuttal that scorned the findings was quickly posted to the Science Media Centre. A cursory glance at how the study was conducted would set alarm bells ringing; however, most people don’t get past the headline, so the damage is done.

Another headline cries, “Vaping nearly killed me, says British teenager”. When you get into the specifics, you discover that the lung inflammation suffered by the teen was likely caused by an allergic reaction to a component of the vapour. Compared to the number of vapers around the world, the instances of allergy triggered illness are extremely rare. It’s obviously a shame that the boy suffered such an extreme response; but why did it make the news? We don’t get headlines reading, “Bee sting nearly killed me” so why do we get them for vaping?

Then, of course, we’ve just got past the months of ‘vaping crisis’ headlines off the back of a mysterious lung illness in America. It was found to be caused by an ingredient that shouldn’t be used in e-liquid - namely vitamin-e acetate. The vitamin-e was being used to dilute black market THC vape cartridges. We covered the story at length back in September when the illness was first recognised. Since then, experts from around the world have come out against the vaping doom merchants. If you’re still not convinced, ask yourself a question. Why was the ‘epidemic’ confined to America when people around the world vape nicotine e-liquid?

E-cigarettes don’t help people quit smoking

If you’re reading this as a vaper, you would have also been a smoker once (or maybe you’re currently a dual user). If you’re anything like I was as a smoker, you would have made multiple attempts to quit. For me, quitting was actually the easy part - it was staying quit that was the problem.

My numerous cold turkey quit attempts lasted less than a week, on average. Nicotine gum and patches handled the worst of the cravings but didn’t solve the issue of what to do with my hands. Hypnotherapy was fairly successful, but I still went back to the cigs after about 6 months. On the other hand, vaping just worked - like, instantly! I’ve been completely smoke free now for nearly 7 years. In fact, the vast majority of the customers I speak to say that vaping is the only thing that has worked for them long term.

So, imagine my surprise to hear from American researchers that vaping is not an effective way to quit smoking.

Californian ‘researchers’ are trying to convince us that vaping makes quitting smoking more difficult. Yet, if you look into the method of the actual ‘study’ it is deeply flawed. The only people included in the study were current smokers that had previously used e-cigarettes; meaning that they purposefully excluded people that had successfully quit smoking using e-cigarettes.

Peter Hajek, Director of the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit at Queen Mary University of London, called the study "grossly misleading." In a statement posted on the Science Media Centre website he said,

"The studies that are presented as showing that vaping does not help people quit only recruited people who were currently smoking and asked them if they used e-cigarettes in the past. This means that people who used e-cigarettes and stopped smoking were excluded. The same approach would show that proven stop-smoking medications do not help or even undermine quitting."

As smokers, we made the choice to switch to vaping because it was proven to be our best shot at quitting successfully. There are now more than a million ex-smokers in the UK that are using, or have used, e-cigarettes. Is that a coincidence? Do those figures lead anyone to the conclusion that vaping isn’t an effective way to quit smoking?

I’ll leave the final word on this point to Rosanna O’ Connor, Director of Tobacco, Alcohol & Drugs at Public Health England:

“Evidence from practice in England shows that two out of three smokers who combined e-cigarettes with additional expert support from a local stop smoking service quit successfully and while dual use is a complex issue, many vapers report using an e-cigarette to cut down and ultimately quit. Smokers who have struggled to quit in the past could try vaping, and we encourage vapers to take that next step and stop smoking completely.”

The vaping industry markets to children

According to the anti-vaping contingent, the vaping industry markets itself to children in order to create a generation of nicotine addicted vapers.

Now, this is one that requires a bit more thought. On the one hand, we have definitely seen examples of vape branding and marketing that you would be hard pushed to think was strictly aimed at adults. We’ve also seen brands using social media with youth related imagery.

On the other hand, saying that e-liquid flavours are designed to attract children to vaping is ludicrous. As I mentioned previously, I switched from smoking to vaping 7 years ago (in my mid thirties) and not ONCE have I vaped a tobacco flavoured e-liquid. Spoiler alert - adults like flavours too! 

Also, if e-liquid flavours were specifically designed to attract children, then it’s not working! Despite headlines to the contrary, vaping among young people remains extremely low. We’ve covered the actual statistics at length in a previous post.

So yes, much can be done to limit the exposure of social media, and to adapt branding. As an industry, we should take responsibility and clean up our own house before the choice to do so is taken from us.

However, removing flavours is a massive overstretch and one that will do serious harm to adult vapers. We know from our own sales that tobacco flavoured e-liquids were knocked off the popularity top spot years ago - and we stringently only sell to over 18s. Taking away the minty and fruity options will send vapers back to smoking, or to the black market. Neither are scenarios that we want to see.

Vaping is a gateway for non-smokers into using tobacco products

The FDA claims that they have evidence that e-cigarettes are a gateway to smoking. Other anti-vaping research takes it a step further and claims that vaping is a gateway to marijuana or even Class A drugs!

We won’t dignify these last two ridiculous assertions with a response. However, we will address the smoking claim with a much needed bit of logic. If it were true that vaping leads to smoking, then smoking rates would be increasing; but they aren’t. At all!

In fact, smoking rates among adults and children in the UK are at their lowest on record.

Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive of ASH, made the following statement,

“We need to be vigilant and continue to monitor e-cigarette use among young people. However, smoking prevalence among children and young adults in Britain has fallen substantially since 2010, which doesn’t indicate that vaping has been a gateway into smoking. And to date there is little sign that vaping is the “super-cool” phenomenon among young people here that it is said to be in the USA.”

Vaping and junk science takeaways

When we disagree and debate, the winner is usually the side with the more persuasive argument. When it comes to vaping, the opponents are using junk science to make their argument more persuasive. This is because their argument is illogical and easy to dismiss; meaning that junk science is their last bastion of attack.

When making a decision about the safety and effectiveness of vaping, you must examine and consider the full suite of available data. That means, if you see a headline in The Sun about vaping causing lung cancer, check that against the most recent findings of Cancer Research UK. If a San Franciscan activist makes the news by asserting that vaping makes quitting smoking more difficult, weigh it against the reports from the Royal College of Physicians or the NHS that assert the exact opposite.

We don't believe that e-cigarettes are 100% safe - that’s why no credible body has ever claimed that they are. The current position of Public Health England is that e-cigarettes are at least 95% less harmful than tobacco cigarettes. This is a position that they have maintained throughout the onslaught of spurious research. It is also a position that is supported by myriad ethical and authoritative bodies that all have harm reduction as their primary goal.

It’s confusing - there’s no doubt about it. The challenge for tobacco harm reduction advocates in 2020 will be separating facts and reality from junk and moral panic so that smokers can make factual decisions about effective alternatives.

We're here to help you quit smoking for good

At Vape UK, we pride ourselves on being responsible vaping advocates. We keep up to date with all of the latest news and studies; we supply high quality TPD compliant vaping products; and we are always on hand to offer helpful and honest advice about vaping. Please get in touch if you have any queries on quitting smoking.

  • Nicola Webster

About the author - Nicola Webster

Nicola Webster works as a researcher, consultant, and content creator for Vape UK and Vape UK CBD. She holds a CIM Level 6 Diploma in Professional Marketing and has developed her skills and knowledge of analytics and research over a 12 year career in product marketing. Her research led approach to campaigns and content writing ensures the articles she writes for Vape UK always have a basis in fact and cut through the noise. A strong advocate for tobacco harm reduction, Nicola is an ex-smoker thanks to vaping and wants others to understand the benefits of vaping compared to smoking. Outside of content creation and vaping advocacy, Nicola enjoys watching live music, travelling in Southeast Asia, and exploring the beautiful countryside of the South Downs.