Jenesa Jeram: The science of sifting fact from fiction

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Some recent news stories about the risks or safety of vaping are just plain wrong.
Everyone is trying to decide whether e-cigarettes are safe or not. Picture / Getty Images
Everyone is trying to decide whether e-cigarettes are safe or not. Picture / Getty Images

Have you ever read a headline claiming some scientific finding that doesn't sound quite right? Such as cheese is as addictive as cocaine, vegetarianism gives you cancer, or a glass of red wine is equivalent to spending an hour at the gym.

John Oliver on Last Week Tonight recognised the problem recently, highlighting common problems with scientific studies and how they are communicated. In 20 minutes of pure comedy gold, he showed the many common mistakes that allow misconceptions and myths to perpetuate.

These flaws include using a small sample size, press releases or news stories that exaggerate study results, confusing statistically significant results with real-world significance, and assuming experiments performed on mice are automatically applicable to humans.

Oliver puts it best: "Science is by its nature imperfect, but it is hugely important ... it deserves better than to be twisted out of proportion and turned into morning show gossip."

Poorly executed or poorly communicated studies can affect public opinion and public demand for policy interventions, and can even influence policymakers directly.

What's more, it doesn't take a PhD in science to be able to identify the good studies from the bad. All it takes is the ability to read beyond a news story or press release. A healthy dose of scepticism helps too (as does having the satirical wit of John Oliver, but that's a high threshold to meet).

Misunderstandings about e-cigarettes and vaping fall heavily into this category. As a relatively new product, the evidence about it is still emerging. But that doesn't mean all studies are of the same quality. When taking into account quality, the pool of evidence is not as mixed or contradictory as some have made out.

Health practitioners, academics, the media and the public are trying to get their heads around whether e-cigarettes are safe. With the risks of conventional smoking probably still fresh in everyone's mind, a lot of caution is being taken before endorsing them.

Such concerns are reasonable. But let's check the science on this. And more importantly, let's look at how myths and misunderstandings can perpetuate.

The most reliable and robust evidence to date suggests e-cigarettes do not pose a disproportionate risk to health, and are a much safer alternative to smoking. The Royal College of Physicians is the most recent organisation to endorse this.

That's not to say e-cigarettes pose zero risk. There are few activities that have no risks whatsoever. Yet Public Health England's review of the literature finds that e-cigarettes are around 95 per cent safer than smoking.

A recently released report by the Royal College of Physicians, Nicotine without smoke: Tobacco harm reduction, has supported smokers making the switch to e-cigarettes. Not only are they less harmful, but they could be a promising cessation tool for those who have not found current cessation methods helpful. A main point of difference is that e-cigarettes can deliver many of the enjoyable sensory effects of smoking, but without the same level of harmful toxins.

If that is the case, then what about the contrary evidence?

Well, using one of the more recent examples, some news stories are just plain wrong. Consider the reporting of an e-cigarette study published in Public Health Research and Practice. A New Zealand media outlet described the study's conclusions as evidence that "it's likely e-cigarettes actually pose a passive risk to children and pregnant women - just like traditional smokes".

That's a bit of a stretch from what the study actually concluded. The study found the risk from e-cigarette vapour is likely to be less than from exposure to tobacco smoke. And the study noted that it's unclear whether the lower level of these chemicals will have adverse effects on passive bystanders.

The New Zealand Initiative's latest report on public health and lifestyle regulations, The Health of the State, gives many more examples of where news stories or press releases differ from the study. Or even where a study's conclusion or policy recommendations do not actually match the results found within the same study.

The concern is these studies have a bearing on the legislation around e-cigarettes, and could affect smokers' uptake of vaping as a safer alternative.

The restrictions on e-cigarettes are a curious piece of public policy. The evidence on smoking rates suggests current efforts to make people quit smoking are not reaching certain populations.

For those who want to quit, but have found current cessation methods ineffective, e-cigarettes could be just the innovative solution to what has previously seemed an intractable problem.

Jenesa Jeram is a policy analyst at The New Zealand Initiative and author of The Health of the State.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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