If you’ve ever slapped your palm to your forehead and rolled your eyes at the way the media reports nutrition information, have I got a teaching moment for you. All you have to do is read the headlines about e-cigarettes.
Let’s be clear. I’m no fan of e cigarettes. I’m pretty sure that as more research comes out, we’re going to find all kinds of reasons why inhaling colored, flavored chemicals in a cloud of hot vapor is probably not a good idea.
That said, the media reporting on this subject has been both hysterical and irresponsible.
Recent research from the New England Journal of Medicine seems to indicate that e-cigarettes could produce high levels of formaldehyde, which is a poison. The media went to crazy: “High Levels of Formaldehyde Hidden in E-cigarettes,”
“E-cigarettes Not Safer than Ordinary Cigarettes,” and, from CBS news,
“E-cigarette Vapor Has Cancer-Causing Chemical.”
All this negative publicity made a lot of people who were thinking about quitting cigarettes have second thoughts.
But was that research accurately reported? Let’s go to the videotape.
The study focused on a premium vaporizer that heats flavored liquid containing nicotine to turn it into a vapor, which the user then inhales. Almost all of these devices let you run them at either low or high voltage. The researchers ran the device at both temperatures; at the low temperature they detected exactly zero formaldehyde, at the high temperature they did in fact detect some formaldehyde.
But here's the thing. No normal person would ever run these things at high voltage, because when you vaporize at high voltage it results in an absolutely disgusting taste and you can’t inhale it.
Human studies of vaping have found that once you’re above a certain temperature — which by the way was even lower than the high temperature that the researchers used in the study — nobody could inhale because the taste was so unbearable.
When The New York Times asked one of the authors of the e-cig study, David Peyton, about the media coverage, he replied "What the media is reporting has nothing to do with our study. It is exceedingly frustrating to me that we are being associated with saying that e-cigarettes are more dangerous than cigarettes when, in fact, that is not in evidence."
The Times even told Peyton about a tweet that the New England Journal of Medicine had put out, which said that the authors of the study projected a higher cancer risk with e-cigarettes than with regular cigarettes. Peyton said, "I regret that. That is not my opinion."
In general, the media do a poor job of reporting research, whether it's on heart disease, cholesterol, diet, or nutritional supplements. That's because research is almost always more complicated than what can fit into an article or a sound bite.
To say that e-cigarettes run on two different voltages — a safe, low voltage that e-smokers actually use, and a formaldehyde-producing high voltage that’s basically unusable — doesn’t make for an exciting or sexy story.
But to say e-cigarettes cause cancer is a headline people will read!
It just happens not to be true.
Take what you read in the media about health research with a grain of salt. Read commentaries; go to the blogs of the people you trust, and dig a little deeper.
You'll almost always find that the headline — especially when the story is about health, nutrition, or supplements — is a poor representation of what actually occurred in the research.
Posts by Jonny Bowden, PhD
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