Vaping in the Media

Published by Matt Brown on 11th Sep 2015

We’re fortunate enough to live in a society where we have access to a free and robust media. In the UK we have dozens of national newspapers, as well as multiple commercial and public service broadcasters. Thanks to the availability of media outlets, we are now exposed to the news in a way which has never before been possible.

This is not without its downsides, however. In such a crowded marketplace, newspapers need to stand out from the competition in order to sell copies. This, ultimately, can lead to sensationalist headlines, which often misconstrue or ignore the facts. When it comes to coverage of e-cigarettes, the mainstream media has consistently struck a negative tone, in the face of mounting evidence that e-cigs pose far less of a risk to users than tobacco.

A case in point is a story published by the Daily Mail this week, which features the eye-catching headline ‘Teenagers who use e-cigarettes are 'FOUR TIMES as likely to progress to traditional cigarettes within a year', study warns’.

Written in this way, the headline is suggesting that e-cigs pose a significant risk that teenagers will use them as a gateway to tobacco. What the headline doesn’t mention, however, is that the data it cites in order to make such a claim comes from a sample group of just 16 people in a single study. The group was also made up of people aged 16 – 26 (at last look, anyone over 20 is no longer a teenager!)

The Daily Mail (wilfully or not) fails to take into consideration several important issues with the study. The study did not identify whether or not those sampled were using e-liquids containing nicotine (so may have had a pre-existing nicotine addiction before moving on to cigarettes), nor did it establish their baseline e-cigarette use at the beginning of the study. There is also no information provided as to whether or not those sampled became regular smokers, or simply tried a cigarette for the sake of experimentation.

Had the Daily Mail invited comment from other parties, their reporting may have been given a little more balance. Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos has been a regular scientific contributor to many news reports and has in fact penned a response to the study in question. Other scientific commentary could similarly have been sought. Prof. Ann McNeill, Professor of Tobacco Addiction at the National Addiction Centre, King’s College London has said in response to the study’s findings:

“The study focuses on only 16 people, aged 16-26 years, who had tried an e-cigarette at baseline and were deemed ‘non-susceptible’ to cigarette smoking. Hence trying an e-cigarette had not, at this point, made them susceptible to smoking cigarettes. Sadly, therefore, this study cannot throw any light at all on what influenced a proportion of these 16 people to soften their attitudes towards cigarettes smoking or try a traditional cigarette one year later.”

Further, it would make sense to draw a parallel in the article between this study and the uptake of e-cigarettes among non-smokers. Sadly, there is no reference to ASH’s findings from May this year which showed the uptake of e-cigarettes among those who have never smoked standing at a minuscule 0.2%.

While the Daily Mail’s recent article is just one example of flawed reporting, it’s far from alone. It’s true that more positive reports are beginning to filter through, however, the vast majority of coverage in the mainstream media continues to be negative, or skewed at the very least.

Unfortunately, many mainstream news outlets know how readers consume content. A large percentage of an audience will never read past the headline, while even more won’t get beyond the first one or two paragraphs. This means that when a clarification of the sensational headline appears half way through an article, most of the audience has already moved on. This strategy can be used to great effect in pushing a specific news agenda, which every media outlet has, whether they’re conscious of it or not.

Until the mainstream media catches up with scientific opinion, or makes a greater effort to deliver more balanced coverage of vaping, readers should treat such articles with caution.