The Media’s Uncritical Approach To E-Cigarettes Harms Public Health
If Americans needed any more reason to be skeptical of the media establishment they need look no further than the coverage given to the Surgeon General’s first-ever report into youth e-cigarette use, released Thursday.
Unfortunately, the report provides very little new information and presents what we already knew about youth e-cigarette use in a way that verges on deceitful.
For example, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy claims youth vaping is a “form of tobacco use.” This is simply incorrect, e-cigarettes contain absolutely no tobacco. Furthermore, the report fails to even mention that e-cigarettes are unlikely to exceed 5 percent of the risks associated with smoking, according to the Royal College of Physicians.
The Washington Post repeated Murthy’s claim unchallenged saying “e-cigarettes are now the most commonly used form of tobacco among young people.” The New York Times was similarly uncritical of the claim reporting “e-cigarettes are now the most commonly used tobacco product among youths.”
The report gives the impression that America’s youth is under threat from a sinister new product that could reverse decades of tobacco control success.
Nothing could be further from the truth. While it is correct to point out at that e-cigarette use among young people surged from 2011, Murthy fails to highlight some crucial facts.
The US teen smoking rate has been plummeting over the last three years, at exactly the same time as e-cigarette use has surged. In 2015, the smoking rate among US high school students fell to the lowest level since the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey began in 1991.
If vaping was in any way a gateway to smoking, we should’ve seen an explosion in teen cigarette smoking but instead, we’ve seen the exact opposite. Of course, it would be preferable if minors didn’t use either regular cigarettes or vapor products, but if more young people are opting for vaping instead of smoking that is a win for public health.
Another part of the picture conspicuous by its absence is that the vast majority of teens using e-cigarettes do so only occasionally or experimentally. Only around 1 percent of high schoolers vape daily.
But if you were to read the L.A. Times coverage of the report you would be left with a very different impression, with the paper asserting “many of these students are vaping on a regular basis.” The basis for this claim being that 16 percent of high school students in 2016 tried vaping at least once in the last 30 days.
The Surgeon General’s report and the media’s deferential reaction to it are part of a larger narrative that is hostile to e-cigarettes, prizing nicotine abstinence above all else.
But by only reporting the potential harms of vaping, ignoring the benefits and failing to explain its risk relative to smoking the media miss the whole point of e-cigarettes — widespread tobacco harm reduction.
This kind of reporting has real consequences for how the public perceive the risks of vaping and smoking. The percentage of smokers who think e-cigarettes are just as harmful as tobacco cigarettes tripled between 2012 and 2015 to 35 percent. This is despite overwhelming evidence that e-cigarettes are safer than tobacco cigarettes and are helping millions of adults to quit smoking.
On a personal level, I encountered the extent of this misinformation when someone close to me said her mother was trying to quit smoking and was struggling. I suggested she try an e-cigarette. It wasn’t even an option. Her mother was convinced they were just as bad as the real thing because that’s what she’d heard on the news.
Failing to fully report both sides of the story does a disservice not just to the media but to those who want to know the truth about products that could potentially save their lives and help them quit smoking for good.
If the media wants to regain credibility in the eyes of the public, it needs to apply the same skepticism it has for the claims of private corporations and privately funded research groups, to the mammoth departments and agencies of the government’s public health establishment.