BAD NEWS: Media Coverage Of National Academies Report Focuses On Negatives

Carl V. Phillips | Contributor

The recent National Academies report on vapor products and vaping provoked a strangely mixed reaction from vaping supporters. Many lauded it for explicitly stating that vaping is less harmful than smoking; while long-since obvious, the report — which did not actually involve any new scientific research — was a good excuse to repeat the message. Other observers focused more on the misinformation. This includes the report’s claim that evidence shows there is gateway effect, with vaping causing teenage smoking. The report also failed to make clear just how low the apparent risk is and claimed that there is more uncertainty about the risk than there is. In addition, there was the meaningless assertion that vaping is addictive, and the absurd suggestion that the net public health effects of vaping are unclear, largely because the report endorsed the manufactured doubts in the academic literature about whether vaping really aids smoking.

The National Academies report was tailor-made for rationalizing the planned policies of the FDA, which commissioned the report. That will undoubtedly be its main role in the world. But its impact on immediate news reporting could have gone either way. It turns out that it went almost entirely negative, as was presumably intended by the report authors.

The reliably pro-vaping Washington Examiner offered the rare positive headline, “Landmark e-cigarette report explodes myth that vaping is as toxic as smoking.” That article, by Daily Vaper contributor Guy Bentley, is presumably what the optimistic commentators were hoping to see. Bentley’s article discussed the issue of comparative risks at length and made only oblique reference to the indefensible claims in the report. However, this messaging appears to have been unique in the media landscape.

The Hill, which is far more likely to be read by Beltway insiders, based their article about the report almost entirely on the gateway claim. The New York Times ran a balanced headline (“risks and benefits”) but led off with sections on “addiction” and “toxic substances.” The article also repeated the gateway claim and finished with the doubt about vaping being useful for smoking cessation. It conceded in passing that exposures are lower compared to smoking, but buried that within extensive discussions of the negative claims.

National Public Radio did not bury the positive messages, but clearly emphasized the negative. It led with the gateway claim, the primary emphasis of the article, followed by suggesting that vaping only maybe helps smoking cessation. The article also focused on vague claims about harmful chemicals in vapor and gave the last word to an anti-vaping activist. Fox News headlined with the claim that e-cigarettes might either “help or harm.” While this theme continued, the concrete content was almost all claims about risks. NBC News reported that vaping can “hook teens” and increase smoking, conceding only that it “may” be less harmful than smoking. The AP wire story emphasized the supposed uncertainty about the net public health effects.

Almost every other story in mainstream media repeated negative themes similar to these. Most of these appeared within a day or two of the report’s release, though a few stories (seemingly all negative) continue to trickle out two weeks later.

Anyone reading about the report within a pro-vaping bubble might have gotten the mistaken impression that this report was a sea-change, representing a move by the U.S. government to sound more like that of the UK. Vox’s article on the report offered an odd hybrid of this view and the standard news stories. The author, who engages with pro-vaping commentary and thus might have been influenced by it, led with breathless statements about a sea-change. But she then went on to uncritically recite the denial of smoking cessation benefits, the gateway claims, and the doubts about the net public health effects. She mentioned the lower risk compared to smoking, but only in the context of emphasizing the supposed unknowns. Other major online media articles were even more negative, with the same basic tone and coverage of the old media reports.

Naturally, numerous tobacco control activists seized on the misinformation in the report. The broadside from Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids was the most interesting. Unsurprisingly it emphasized the gateway claims. It took the misleading message about vaping possibly not aiding smoking cessation even further than the report did, verging on saying it offers no aid. It tried to completely negate the message about lower risks by emphasizing the (incorrect) assertions from the report that we are ignorant about the long-term effects. This statement read like a preview of how FDA is likely to use this report: They overstated the reports’ already exaggerated claims of uncertainty, spinning them into a diatribe about the need for iron-fisted regulation. Other activists, including the American Heart Association, focused on a “this reinforces everything we have been telling you” spin.

The (inevitable) quick disappearance of the story from the popular media further illustrates that the main role of the report will be to provide political cover for FDA. Even to the extent that the public may have extracted positive messages from the negative coverage, the impact has already faded, though anyone suspicious of vaping will recall that their view was reinforced. Vaping advocates could point to the report’s positive statements in testimony and analysis, but this is a dangerous game. As the press coverage illustrated, the report sets up a retort to this: that a mere reduction is not good enough and there are risks we do not yet know. While it is possible to make an “even they…” argument (“even these authors, who were very negative, admitted the risk was lower”), it is very tricky to pull off.

It probably gives the authors too much credit to suggest they intentionally created a rhetorical trap, providing just enough enticing positive messaging to entrap vaping advocates into endorsing their report. But if they did, it was clever. It is much like the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” coup by UK tobacco controllers, getting vaping advocates to repeat their made-up claim that vaping is quite harmful, merely 95 percent less harmful as smoking. It is tempting and easy to point to these “less harmful” statements in official reports as a quick refutation in a Twitter bicker. But doing so endorses the message that vaping is still so terribly risky that severe regulation is justified.

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Carl V. Phillips

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