30 March 2011

Unhealthful News 89 - Oily e-cigarettes?

I thought it was bad when health reporters seemed to do nothing more sophisticated than a Google search about the topic they were writing about.  Perhaps asking for even that standard would be a good start.

As discussed in more detail by Chris Snowdon, the BBC reported the "news" about an e-cigarette user who died (it happens) of lung disease and his medic claimed that it was due to the e-cigarettes rather than, say, his former heavy smoking.  It is, of course, possible that e-cigarettes could cause lung disease (though not very likely – not only are the chemicals in e-cigarette liquid unlikely to cause lung disease based on what we know, but not much actually reaches the lungs).  But when a reporter says the following, it is pretty clear he did not even do the Google search: 
[E-cigarettes] contain a cartridge of liquid nicotine
(that would indeed be bad – it would be a contact poison!)

and the product the decedent used
 seemed to involve a mixture of nicotine and some oil
(there are very tiny bits of flavoring oils in some products, but a basic knowledge of e-cigarettes or chemistry would reveal that nicotine+oil could not have been the recipe)

and,
there's no systematic research assessing the overall safety of inhaling these chemicals deep into the lungs over an extended period
(which is fairly obviously true, since people do not actually inhale the chemicals deep into the lungs – not the ones that are actually in e-cigarettes, let alone the made up oil that appeared in this story).

If the reporter had decided to spend a second five minutes learning about his topic (after the first five minutes it would have taken to gain a basic literacy about e-cigarettes), he would have discovered what Snowdon, in his role as unpaid investigative reporter not employed by the BBC, reported:  That the medic in question is an activist anti-nicotine extremist who was presumably looking for an excuse to attack tobacco harm reduction.  Hmm, should that have caused a reporter to question what he was reporting, or at least be worth mentioning?  Nah, if you do something other than just transcribe allegations, it takes work and then you would not be able to spend most of the day, after submitting your story, working on your lousy novel on the company's time.

I honestly do not have anything more to add to what Chris and others have already mentioned about how dumb the analysis in this report was.  I just thought this deserved to be highlighted not just as anti-tobacco/nicotine propaganda disguised as science, but also as Unhealthful News.

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