Staff Columnist

Do Iowa lawmakers care about vaping facts?

'The drug prohibitionists have always relied on flimsy evidence and the public's willingness to make snap judgments in the face of a perceived public health menace.'

A man exhales while smoking an e-cigarette in August 2019 in Portland, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)
A man exhales while smoking an e-cigarette in August 2019 in Portland, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)

The initial deception almost always gets more attention than the subsequent correction. As the often-misattributed quip puts it, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

This especially holds true for potential public health threats, which are ripe for spreading misinformation and causing panic. A case in point is the latest development in the anti-vaping movement: the retraction of a key paper in the case against e-cigarettes, which should give Iowa legislators something to think about on their bipartisan march toward overregulation.

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Last June, the Journal of the American Heart Association published a study that found e-cigarettes are linked to a significantly heightened risk of a heart attack. One of the authors, Stanton Glantz, is a prominent critic of e-cigarettes who once said e-cigarette users “would be better off just smoking.”

A Google search for “e-cigs cause heart attacks” — a phrase borrowed from Glantz’s own announcement of his study — turns up hundreds of results parroting that conclusion from reputable information sources, including academic websites and major news organizations.

However, it turns out that claim is not supported by scientific evidence.

Two weeks ago, the Journal of the American Heart Association retracted the e-cigs-cause-heart-attacks study. That was surprising to no one who follows the issue closely, because the paper was credibly debunked by multiple sources within a couple of weeks of its publication.

The discredited study erroneously counted former smokers who had heart attacks before they started using e-cigarettes. Without them, several critics pointed out, the link between e-cigs and heart attacks doesn’t hold up.

Worse yet, those misinterpretations were identified by the peer review process, and the paper still was allowed to be published, editors of the journal wrote in their retraction statement.

Glantz continues to defend the paper, writing that the retraction was “an extreme action.”

Obviously, we didn’t learn our lesson from the 2019 vape death mania.

Around the same time the heart attack study was published, public health officials warned that dozens of people were getting sick and dying from a mysterious vape illness. That was cited as an urgent reason to restrict access to nicotine e-cigarettes, leading Congress to raise the age to purchase nicotine and the Trump administration to pursue a ban on flavored products.

Here again, we find the first take was wrong. Scientists now understand those illnesses were related to illegal cannabis vapes, not retail nicotine products. Nevertheless, a significant portion of the public still wrongly believes e-cigarettes are more hazardous than traditional cigarettes.

I worry this new information will not cause the Iowa Legislature to ease up on its attempts to make it more difficult for adults to obtain e-cigarettes. Bills to increase the age to possess tobacco and vapor products and to increase regulations on e-cigarette sellers are progressing through the Legislature with broad bipartisan support.

It would be wise to remember there are huge incentives for researchers to report scary stuff. It garners more grant money, exposure and influence. The drug prohibitionists have always relied on flimsy evidence and the public’s willingness to make snap judgments in the face of a perceived public health menace.

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These are the same scholarly communities that fooled the world into believing for decades that cannabis is an addictive gateway drug.

Excuse me if I take their prescriptions with a dose of skepticism.

Comments: adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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