HuffPo Scrambles To Fix E-Cig Story Amid Torrent Of Criticism

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Guy Bentley Research Associate, Reason Foundation
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The Huffington Post has made a series of corrections to an error-strewn video featuring Dr. Margaret Cuomo, sister of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, claiming e-cigarettes are just as dangerous as tobacco cigarettes.

The video published Monday stirred up a torrent of criticism from scientists, doctors, and the public. Cuomo, who fails to cite any evidence during the course of the video, puts forward one of the most radical and as of yet unsupported views about the risks of e-cigarettes.

The Daily Caller News Foundation published a story on the video’s inaccuracies, complete with expert and academic commentary that refuted several obvious falsehoods. (RELATED: Experts Come Out Of The Woodwork To Slam Gov. Cuomo’s Sister For HuffPo Video About E-Cigs)

Here’s how HuffPo scrambled to correct its video, and how it failed to correct Cuomo’s most controversial assertion.

The Controversy

After releasing the video Monday morning, there was a backlash on social media over its inaccuracies. “Because of their chemical composition e-cigarettes are at least as harmful to your health as regular tobacco cigarettes are,” says Cuomo in the opening line.

“E-cigarettes contain many harmful chemicals that tobacco cigarettes do not contain such as formaldehyde, benzene, propylene glycol, and metals like cadmium, nickel, and tin,” Cuomo went on to say. As anyone with the ability to navigate a search engine can discover, tobacco cigarettes contain all of but one of these chemicals.

Fortunately, experts were quick to discredit Cuomo’s argument. “All the available research to date suggests that although there are toxicants in e-cigarettes, they are at far lower levels than in smoked tobacco,” said Professor Linda Bauld, Professor of Health Policy, University of Stirling; Deputy Director, UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies.

The video was later ripped from the site but put back up on Wednesday morning. According to HuffPo, the video was taken down to make a minor alteration.

“A previous version of this video misidentified one of the chemicals in the e-cigarette smoke as tin; it is zinc,” a correction note beneath the video states. But this change was just the start of HuffPo’s backtracking.

A Comedy Of Errors

HuffPo staff went back to look at the video after The Daily Caller News Foundation inquired about its inconsistencies, including the assertion that formaldehyde, benzene, propylene glycol, and metals like cadmium, nickel, and zinc are found in e-cigarettes and not in tobacco smoke.

Updated for the second time Thursday, HuffPo scrapped the section which stated e-cigarettes contain many chemicals that tobacco cigarettes don’t. HuffPo also cut out a part where Cuomo alleges “e-cigarettes will raise your risk for lung cancer, but also other cancers. Like liver cancer.”

“A reference to risks of cancer associated with e-cigarettes has also been removed; rather, some compounds found in e-cigarettes are associated with risks of cancer and liver disease,” HuffPo added to their original correction.

Instead, Cuomo now says, chemicals identified in e-cigarette vapor are “in many cases cancer-causing agents.” What Cuomo omits from her analysis is that the proportion of these chemicals in regular cigarettes dwarfs the quantities found in e-cigs.

E-cigarettes need to be turned to such a high power setting to produce anything close to hazardous levels of formaldehyde, that it’s wildly unrealistic to assume that users would be exposed to them. These settings produce a burning condition known as a “dry puff,” an experience conventional users typically avoid.

To make the picture even more complicated, HuffPo has two different links to the video now, both with different headlines and explanatory paragraphs. But one of them was drastically altered following questioning from the DCNF. Here’s what the original headline and paragraph explaining the video said.

Screenshot Huffington Post

Screenshot Huffington Post

And here’s the second:

Screenshot Huffington Post

Screenshot Huffington Post

The canyon sized difference between the two headlines cannot be overstated. Equating e-cigarettes with regular cigarettes would mean vaping is one of the most dangerous, legal consumer activities one can undertake.

Few experts will assert e-cigarettes have zero risk and are totally safe. The relevant question for those using e-cigs to help them quit smoking, however, is how much safer are they than traditional tobacco cigarettes.

Public Health England (PHE), an agency of the United Kingdom’s Department of Health provides a useful answer: E-cigarettes are 95 percent safer than tobacco and could be a “game-changer” for getting people to quit smoking.

The Response

HuffPo had no answers when it came to including citations or expert studies to back up Cuomo’s assertions in the video. Similarly, with regard to fact-checking procedures. HuffPo’s spokesperson only said, “We have updated the video to reflect corrections and have made note of them in both the video and article.”

The Biggest Error Remains

Even though there is as of yet, no scientific basis for her claim, HuffPo’s staff decided to leave the part of the video where she alleges e-cigs are just as harmful as regular cigarettes unchanged.

TheDCNF asked HuffPo if Dr. Cuomo would like to reply to any of the criticisms of her video. Cuomo has not responded.

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