We can’t be trusted with the truth about e-cigarettes’ health risks — that’s what government health officials and many advocates seem to think. Almost every single study that has looked into the safety of vaping has found it to be significantly less harmful than traditional cigarettes, without serious harm from long-term use, and effective at helping smokers quit. Americans would never know this, however, if their only source of information was government recommendations.
Within the advocate and regulatory communities, there seems to be a concerted effort to obscure the safety of alternative tobacco products and to magnify any evidence of possible risk. In short, they are trying to make consumers run scared from a demonstrably safer product, when the likely alternative is traditional tobacco products, which kill up to half of their users.
In its first ever report on e-cigarettes last December, the Surgeon General’s office repeatedly referred to vape products as “a public health threat” and called for increased “evidence-based messages about the health risks of e-cigarette use,” as journalist Jacob Sullum recently noted. The report focused on the threat posed to teenaged non-smokers, specifically that they might become addicted to nicotine by starting with vapes, which young people (correctly) perceive as less dangerous than traditional cigarettes. But deterring teens from vaping does not justify the current campaign of hyperbole that is scaring all Americans, not just teens, including those whose lives might be saved by replacing tobacco with vaping.
The research community is in lock-step with the campaign to hide the true risks associated with vaping, ignoring possible benefits and magnifying even the smallest potential risk of harm. A review of the existing body of published research on the topic shows a consistent push within the academic community to make consumers frightened of the unknown long-term risks associated with vaping.
Take for example, a recent study by Charalambos Vlachopoulos of the University of Athens. According to its author, the study shows that a 30-minute vaping session caused as much aortic stiffness as smoking a cigarette. Cue the headlines declaring that a new study finds “Vaping as Bad for Heart as Smoking Cigarettes.” This might give pause to even the most ardent vape enthusiast. But the study did not find that vaping is “as bad for the heart” as cigarettes. What it found was that a 30-minute vaping session caused a similar level of temporary stiffness in the aorta — the body’s main artery — as smoking a cigarette. This differentiation is important because, while there’s evidence that chronic arterial stiffness is associated with increased cardiovascular disease — and evidence linking cigarette smoking with cardiovascular disease — there is no evidence to support the claim that temporary arterial stiffness in and of itself leads to heart damage or increased cardiovascular risk. In other words, the arterial stiffness caused by smoking may not be what leads to increased heart risks.
In fact, those findings are practically meaningless, says Dr. Riccardo Polosa, Director of the Institute for Internal Medicine and Clinical Immunology in the University of Catania. “This is essentially an acute study showing what it is already know [sic] about the acute effect of nicotine on arterial stiffness.” As Polosa notes, other activities — many of which we consider harmless or even healthy (like drinking coffee and engaging in aerobic exercise — also cause temporary stiffening of the arteries. And nicotine patches worn constantly throughout the day cause the same arterial stiffness as the nicotine in an e-cigarette. But, of course, nobody is writing a story titled “Your Workout (or Nicotine Patch) is as Bad for your Heart as Smoking.”
It’s hard to blame journalists for misunderstanding Vlachopoulos’s study since the author did little to correct the confusion. In fact, he seems to be promoting the error himself. “There could be long term heart dangers. They are far more dangerous than people realize,” Vlachopoulos said.
In a certain sense, Vlachopoulos is right. We don’t know how much added risk we incur by vaping over the course of 20, 30, or more years. It probably isn’t 100 percent risk free — but nothing in life is. That’s why we use relative risk to make decisions every day. Should I drive down a road that is safer but slower than another route? Will a glass of wine at dinner each night increase my risk of cancer? What about 4 glasses a night? Is it safer to fly or drive home for the holidays? Should I eat at certain foods even if there’s a chance of food poisoning? We act on the best information we have about our own individual risk and balance that against our risk-tolerance and personal goals. Even if driving is riskier, we may have good reasons, such as cost, to drive rather than fly. We may decide that the enjoyment and heart-benefits of moderate alcohol consumption offset or outweigh the potential increased risk of cancer. Or maybe it’s worth taking a small risk of food poisoning to enjoy a favorite dish. Why, then, do many authorities seem intent on denying us the freedom to weigh the benefits against the unknown risks of vaping?
Unfortunately, this campaign of fear and misinformation is working. Polling data found that in 2015, 35 percent of adults believed e-cigarettes were as harmful as traditional cigarettes. In 2012, just 12 percent of adults had this misinformed perception.
Researchers and bureaucrats are the group most terrified of unknown risks. They’d much rather we all simply wait until they are comfortable enough with the evidence to tell us what we ought to do. But they’ve completely failed to account for the dangers of doing nothing. Even with the unknown risks of e-cigarettes, all the evidence we do have — and there is a lot —indicates vaping is a significantly safer option than combustible tobacco products. The more smokers choose to stick with their tobacco habit out of fear of vaping, the more Americans — both adults and teens — will die prematurely because of that choice.
If public-health advocates and researchers truly want to improve public health, they should quit their campaign of misinformation and scare-mongering and let consumers decide for themselves if vaping is worth the risk.
Michelle Minton is a fellow specializing in consumer policy for the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.