Media Are Distorting Dubious Study Claiming E-Cigarettes Can Cause Cancer

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Guy Bentley Research Associate, Reason Foundation
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Media outlets are seizing on a new study published in the journal “Oral Oncology” that claims two e-cigarette products “damaged cells in ways that could lead to cancer.”

Cue a series of headlines screaming “E-cigarettes can cause cancer” and “E-cigarettes are not safe! They can cause cancer too.”

As with so much research surrounding e-cigarettes and vaping, the journalists writing these articles have barely looked beyond the first paragraph of the press release and are selectively leaving out key factors that call into question the study’s headline-grabbing lede.

Conducted by a research team at the University of California, San Diego, the study investigated how e-cigarettes may contribute to the development and progression of a cancer known as head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC).

The paper argues traditional cigarettes have already been identified as a risk factor in contracting this disease. To test whether e-cigarettes could also be a risk factor, the team created a vapor extract from two popular e-cigarette brands — V2 and VaporF  — and used it to “treat human cells in a petri dish.”

The results showed “the exposed cells showed several forms of damage, including DNA strand breaks. The familiar double helix that makes up DNA has two long strands of molecules that intertwine. When one or both of these strands break apart and the cellular repair process doesn’t work right, the stage is set for cancer.”

While these results may appear to wipe away the claim that vaping is significantly less hazardous than smoking, the truth is a different story.

The press release accompanying the study states that one of the lead researchers, Dr. Jessica Wang-Rodriguez, “notes that cells in the lab are not completely comparable to cells within a living person. The cells lines that scientists work with have been ‘immortalized because of certain cell changes.’ So it could be that e-cigarette vapor has different effects than those seen in the lab.”

Not only may the effect on cells be entirely different in a real world environment, but the press release concedes that “her team didn’t seek to mimic the actual dose of vapor that an e-cigarette user would get.”

“In this particular study, it was similar to someone smoking continuously for hours on end, so it’s a higher amount than would normally be delivered,” said Wang-Rodriguez. So in no way does the study reflect how e-cigarettes are used by vapers in the real world.

As well as the massive canyon-size hole in the study connecting regular e-cigarette use with cancer, Paul Barnes of Facts Do Matter, points out:

The ‘healthy’ cell line (HaCat) shows consistently low ‘cell death’ with an upper percentage of a ~ seven-eight percent, even when exposed to cigarette smoke or to nicotine. Remember, the other two cultures (UMSCC10B and HN30) were deliberately chosen from head and neck squamous cell carcinoma cell lines.

So the cell cultures chosen for the experiment were ones representing “e-cig smokers that already have HNSCC (head and neck squamous cell carcinoma).”

“The reality is, we know that vaping may carry some risk compared with cigarette smoking, and it’s a risk we are prepared to take, just as we did with smoking,” writes Barnes.

“All this study is highlighting is the fact that exposing already cancerous cells to cigarette smoke, nicotine or vapor may accelerate cell death, but of course, only if you swim in it.”

The researchers are, however, not entirely blameless for the hyperbolic media coverage. Despite no serious evidence to support the claim, Wang-Rodriguez said, “I believe they (e-cigarettes) are no better than smoking regular cigarettes.”

The study has already drawn heavy criticism from the President of the American Vaping Association, Gregory Conley who emailed a statement to The Daily Caller News Foundation:

Government-funded researchers have realized that when it comes to vapor products, there is no benefit to honestly presenting their data.  Instead, the path to larger government grants appears to be a competition where the best rewards are given to those whose studies generate the most salacious headlines.
The press release for this study was distributed just days before millions of American smokers make New Years quit attempts. This is shameless and transparent behavior aimed at discouraging smokers from quitting.

Leading tobacco control expert and former Executive Director on Action Smoking and Health was also unimpressed by the study.

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