New Study Shows Public Misplaces Its Trust In Institutions On Vaping Issues

Carl V. Phillips | Contributor

A new paper out of Georgia State University reports that more Americans mistakenly most trust the CDC and FDA for information about vaping and vapor products. The study, based on a 2015 survey, found high levels of distrust toward industry, even among vapers.

The paper, by Scott R. Weaver and colleagues, focuses on average scores on a five-point scale of how much respondents indicated they trusted a particular source of information. The categories of institutions are too aggregated to provide much insight, but the available information is interesting. The CDC was the standout positive result, but it had an average rating only a bit closer to “somewhat trust” than to “neutral.” The FDA ranked well below that, still positive, but closer to neutral.

The only apparent explanation for the difference between the two agencies is a general halo effect of general opinions about them. Information from both agencies skews toward misleading anti-vaping propaganda, but the FDA is arguably not quite as bad as the CDC. Nothing in the reported survey results suggests any explanation for the difference and the authors do not offer a theory.

The only other group that averaged a positive response was the vague category “health experts and scientists,” which scored roughly as high as CDC. However, no sense can be made of this. Health “experts” includes both genuine experts on the subject and random physicians with no greater knowledge of it than the average newspaper reader. “Scientists” includes both real scientific experts and university-based tobacco controllers. It is impossible to know the extent to which subjects interpreted “experts” to mean “everyone with credentials” versus “those who demonstrate they are actually expert (by agreeing with what I believe to be true).” Thus this result is meaningless.

The news media category received an average rating that was somewhat negative, though this too is impossible to interpret usefully. This category includes everything from alarmist local news, to reasonably responsible expert science reporting, to The Daily Vaper, and it is impossible to know what mix of that a particular respondent was considering.

The results for tobacco manufacturers (which respondents presumably interpreted to mean the major cigarette companies) and vapor manufacturers (which some respondents will interpret as including the major cigarette companies and some only vapor-only companies) were both quite negative. The average results for both were solidly below “somewhat distrust,” toward the worst category, “strongly distrust.” The result for tobacco manufacturers was slightly lower than that of vapor manufacturers, though they were basically the same. This means that a majority of respondents gave both of these institutions the worst possible rating and relatively few gave them positive trust ratings.

The reality is that the limited public communication about vapor products by the major cigarette companies is impeccably accurate, albeit extremely conservative about the low-risks of vaping and its benefits for smoking cessation. The better vapor product companies, being somewhat less conservative, provide more accurate information, though it is still quite limited due to legal concerns. Some less reputable vapor product companies make dubious claims, meaning that category, on average, is actually probably less reliable than the major cigarette companies. Still, all but the most outlandish claims are more accurate than what comes out of the FDA and CDC.

As expected, vapers trust the CDC and FDA less than non-vapers, though they still rate them positively on average. Presumably this is because that group is numerically dominated by people who are not very invested in vaping — smokers who occasionally puff a cigalike when they cannot smoke and casual social vapers. Vapers also rated tobacco companies somewhat more trustworthy than others did, and vapor product companies substantially more so, though the results for both are still negative.

The most interesting results may be for the last category reported, vape shop employees. Overall, they fare better than the manufacturers, with a rating of merely “somewhat distrust.” Current vapers indicate greater trust in vape shop employees, but still rate them well on the negative side of neutral. This might just represent the general ignorance — opinions based on vague feelings about people rather than any actual information and knowledge — that dominates all the results. But it could reflect a pattern of interaction with vape shops that often creates an impression of lack of trustworthiness.

The paper goes on to look at demographic differences in responses, which show little, though white people and wealthier people are somewhat more likely to misplace their trust in government agencies and distrust the accurate sources of information. Smokers are more likely than average to trust the valid sources of information (industry), though they still rank them negative on average. The paper then attempts to show correlations with political beliefs, though these are measured in such a dubious and complicated way that little concrete can be said about the results.

The authors do not make the mistake of suggesting that the measured levels of trust in the various institutions caused differences in vaping and smoking status. But they fail to address the fact causation almost certainly runs the other way:  The knowledge that comes from being invested in the topic causes some people to realize that the CDC and FDA cannot be trusted and that industry can. The fairly strong results for political belief measures are consistent with the tendency of political views to determine what information people trust, rather than the other way around.

Despite being funded by the FDA, this paper was a proper matter-of-fact reporting of scientific results. It had a rare and refreshing lack of propaganda and unrelated commentary about the authors’ personal political beliefs. Indeed, the paper explicitly notes that information about vaping is risk-and-benefit communication, which calls for different communications methods than pure risk communication. While this brief point might escape notice, it seems to be a reference to the FDA and CDC making almost every message about risk and avoidance. This, perhaps intentionally, completely undermines their rare “not as bad as smoking” messages.

The authors suggest that their results should inform FDA communications. It is not really clear how. Presumably if the somewhat-trusted government sources radically revised their messaging, also causing the health “experts” to follow them, there would be much less ignorance. Only about half the U.S. population realizes that vaping is (any) less hazardous than smoking, despite it being roughly as hazardous as eating toast. But such a revision would mainly matter because of the “even they” effect, as in “even the government’s anti-tobacco activists are saying this.” As with most political issues (and anything in the tobacco space is more a political issue than a scientific information issue), most people form their opinions and then decide what information to trust, rather than the other way around.

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Carl V. Phillips

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