Journalist Called Out For ‘Irresponsible’ E-Cigarette Scare Story

Guy Bentley | Research Associate, Reason Foundation

Daily Telegraph Science editor Sarah Knapton was sharply criticized Wednesday for a story she wrote touting the claim e-cigarettes are no safer than smoking tobacco.

The subject of Knapton’s piece, published Tuesday with the headline “E-cigarettes are no safer than smoking tobacco, scientists warn,” was a study conducted by a research team at the University of California, San Diego. The team investigated how e-cigarettes may contribute to the development and progression of head and neck cancer.

One of the most eye-catching parts of the study’s press release was a claim made by lead author Dr. Jessica Wang-Rodriguez, who said, “I believe they (e-cigarettes) are no better than smoking regular cigarettes.”

Media outlets across the world picked up the claim and ran headlines including “Vaping no better than smoking regular cigarettes” and “Health warning for ex-smokers: E-cigarettes ‘may cause cancer’ says shock report.”

A host of medical and public health professionals, however, disagree with Wang-Rodriguez. The study itself was criticized for its methodology and conclusions, in addition to the accompanying press release.

Knapton’s piece elicited an especially scathing response. And even more so after she tweeted Wednesday “all the latest evidence points to e-cig vapour being just as harmful as tobacco.”

Medical statistician Adam Jacobs, writing at Stats Guy, labelled Knapton’s piece the “most dangerous, irresponsible, and ill-informed piece of health journalism of 2015.”

Long-time anti-tobacco activist and former director of the United Kingdom’s Action on Smoking (ASH) and Health Clive Bates wrote an open letter to Knapton, challenging her coverage of the story.

Bates responded in the letter to Knapton’s claim she was being trolled by vapers. “[T]he Telegraph just took the press release claim at face value and made a headline of it,” he wrote. “If a troll is ‘a person who makes a deliberately offensive or provocative online posting’ perhaps it is the Telegraph that is trolling vapers and the nation, not vapers trolling you?”

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