Experts Speak-Out Over Misleading Vape Headlines

/ 5 minute read

Experts Speak-Out Over Misleading Vape Headlines

Vaping has seen more than its fair share of bad press since it’s early days, and while not all unjustified there has remained a prevalence for media outlets to overstate the potential harm without giving data the proper context. Fears among experts abound at the potential harm done to vaping’s public perception as a result, potentially preventing people from willingly engaging with one of the most promising routes away from smoking available to-date.

Writing in the Independent, Professor Caitlin Notley and Konstantinos Farsalinos have spoken out against such sensationalism. Notley is a senior lecturer in Mental Health at the University of East Anglia’s Medical School, and Farsalinos is a research associate from the University of West Attica in Greece.

Why are Healthcare Experts Defending Vaping?

Professor Notley in particular has been close to the ongoing process of approving vaping for inclusion into the UK’s National stop smoking services for some time. She is leading an ongoing, first-of-its-kind trial which is offering vaping starter kits to NHS A&E patients who identify as smokers looking to quit. This trial began before the more recent rallying cry from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) calling for vaping manufacturers to submit devices to become medically licenced.

Notley and Farsalinos, like many other healthcare officials and even Members of UK Parliament are taking a strictly data-driven pro-vaping stance. This is based on the growing body of evidence which suggests e-cigarettes could be one of the most effective cessation methods for smokers seeking an alternative. A viewpoint which is gaining traction, as evidenced by the events detailed above.

The pair assert that in order to maximise the potential good vaping may do as a part of national stop smoking services, journalism must strike a fair and unbiased balance on the topic. Rather than sensationalising, media should be presenting the facts clearly so as to allow people to make an educated decision about their wellbeing.

They state: “For the public good, the focus should be on reducing harm, since preventing all harm is impossible.”

“some people, particularly with support, can overcome nicotine dependence. Others find it more difficult or don’t want to stop. For these people, public health doctors must encourage smokers to use nicotine in ways that reduce harm, through vaping or by using nicotine-replacement products.”

Quoting the World Health Organisation’s staggering smoking-related death toll of over 8 million people per year, Notley and Farsalinos have stressed the irresponsibility in sensationalist reporting. The harm done to public perception, at a time when most countries are working towards reducing smoking rates, is not worth the engagement media outlets receive as a result. Especially when such headlines are generated from “complex studies that in reality do not show any real-world harm, particularly compared with the immense harm of tobacco smoking.”

The Vaping Study Frustrating Healthcare Experts

While vaping is still the subject of numerous studies regarding it’s potential impacts on the human body, evidence highlighting it’s relative safety when compared to smoking continues to mount. As Notley and Farsalinos stated, vaping should not be perceived as risk-free, however as an alternative to smoking, it offers people a uniquely effective path away from cigarettes and potentially away from nicotine dependency, with proper support.

One more recent study however, has sparked the headline that has raised the experts’ ire and led to them speaking out against sensationalist vaping journalism. The study in question was published in November 2021, and looked into the potential changes to DNA caused by vaping, and the potential increased risk of disease this can cause. The same impact was measured in smokers also, so as to draw a comparison. The study noted that the changes to DNA in vapers was similar to those observed in smokers.

While the results of the study appear to paint vaping in a negative light at face value, Notley and Farslainos have called the conclusions into question owing to a lack of real-world context. They commented:

No one is claiming that e-cigarettes are completely risk-free. Inhaling anything may result in changes to DNA that could increase risks of disease. Inhaling fumes from diesel cars, for example, has been shown to cause DNA changes.”

“But crucially, this evidence was based on a few people by examining changes in their DNA at the time, similar to creating a snapshot, without considering any potential future change in vaping or smoking behaviour. The study does not provide real-world evidence of vaping-associated ill health.”

They criticised the small number of people recruited for the study, and noted that the sample size was not representative of the population. Going on to highlight the lack of consideration within the study for lifestyle habits that may affect the measurements taken, such as alcohol use.

They do credit the study for attempting to separate the effects of vaping from the effects of damage caused by tobacco smoking, however they note this is difficult owing to most vapers being ex-smokers. They go on to highlight that one of the most important outcomes of the study was buried in the scientific paper that followed. This outcome found that the damage to genes in smokers was 7.4 times higher than in vapers. Ultimately Notley has said “this study finds what we know already: vaping is not completely risk-free but is much less risky than smoking tobacco.”

If you want to learn more about the impacts of vaping, smoking and beyond on the human body, you can see the results of various studies impartially summarised in our best practice guides: Finding the Right Alternative and Nicotine and Health.

The Resulting Bad-Press

Without properly digesting the study in its entirety, a Daily Mail headline soon followed its release stating, “Vaping damages DNA and raises the risk of cancer the same way as cigarettes”. While Notley acknowledges the inclusion of a caveat stating “but it’s not as bad as traditional smoking”, she expressed her concern that “the damage to public perceptions may already be done”.

It was this latest instance of bad-press which led to both her and Farsalinos speaking out on the subject. They do so, not strictly in the defence of vaping, but in the defence of freedom of factual information in the interest of preserving public health and the importance of impartial reporting in preserving public perceptions of tools that may improve their lives.

As the efforts of experts like Notley and Farsalinos improve public perceptions, and vaping moves closer and closer to becoming a part of national stop-smoking services, visit the EDGE Hub for the latest updates.