Scientists refute ‘puzzlingly’ claims that vaping is just as deadly as smoking

When reports began surfacing about a group of Australian researchers who were making false claims that vaping is just as deadly as smoking, scientists in the United Kingdom were intrigued.  After all, The UK is one of the more progressive nations when it comes to the regulation and promotion of electronic cigarettes and vaporizers as a tobacco harm reduction tool.

In 2016, the country’s Royal College of Physicians endorsed then-newly published research by the UK’s Public Health England indicating that vaping is 95 percent less harmful than smoking. To this day, the United Kingdom is one of the few countries on the planet which publicly encourages its citizens to make the switch to vaping as a means to stop smoking.

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To say that the Brits found the Australian’s research ‘puzzling’ would be an understatement, but that’s precisely what Dr. Stephen Andrews of the Science Media Centre (SMC) in London said in a public statement.  He also warned the general population to use “considerable caution” when using the Aussie report as a basis for their decisions to quit smoking by switching to vaping. 

“This Research Letter to ERJ Open Research is a puzzling contribution to the debate on e-cigarette safety. It presents new data that purport to show, among other things, that emissions from e-cigarettes are about as harmful to respiratory health as smoking combustible cigarettes. E-cigarettes are certainly not harmless but the authors’ conclusion is inconsistent with most published research which indicates that vaping is significantly less hazardous than smoking.”

The research letter – or the British equivalent for a conventional press release in the U.S. -  to which Andrews is referring was published by the Australians in ERJ Journals. Entitled, IQOS exposure impairs human airway cell homeostasis: direct comparison with traditional cigarette and e-cigarette, the report immediately caught the attention of the European press which began to misreport its findings. 


For example, a popular online news organization in the UK, The Metro, ran the alarming headline, “No type of smoking is safe: cigarettes, heated tobacco, vaping all ’cause serious lung damage.’”  Understandably, UK public health officials did not want this type of disinformation seeping into the general public and corrupting the public perception of vaping as a safe and healthier alternative to smoking.

Almost immediately after the Australian study was published, scientists and tobacco control experts from around the world began flooding the ERJ website with calls for a retraction.  Dr. Lion Shahab of University College, London, was one of them.  In addition to being an Associate Professor of the Behavioural Science and Health Institute of Epidemiology & Health, Shahab has a lengthy professional history of collaborating with larger pharmaceutical companies like Johnson & Jonson and Pfizer regarding stop smoking aids and other nicotine replacement therapies.

Dr. Lion Shahab finds Aussie vaping report ‘disappointing’

In an opinion statement published in the SMC website, Shahab said that he found the ERJ letter “disappointing” because it lacked the required detail of exponential data needed to conduct a thorough and extensive peer review by other academics.  However, after the cursory review that Shahab could conduct with the limited information available, he was able to uncover some anomalies which make the Australian’s claims highly suspect.

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One notable problem is that the Aussie researchers used animal test subjects to conduct their experiments.  The research community is collectively doubtful of such research because the lungs of mice and rodents differ greatly from those of humans.  Furthermore, the Australians exposed their animals to three full days of constant e-cig vapor exposure, which “does not reflect realistic use conditions,” according to Shahab.

“There is a plausible explanation for their findings, namely that the e-cigarette vapour generated for their experiments with living cells was laden with toxic carbonyls, which can easily happen when the e-cigarette device is run at moderately high power and wicking does not adequately keep up with re-supplying e-liquid to the heating coil, a phenomenon known as a “dry puff”. The sensory experience of dry puffs is so unpleasant due to high levels of formaldehyde that vapers avoid them by modifying their vaping behaviour or adjusting the settings on their devices…
“These type of studies (whether in cells or animals) also have problems for different reasons which are key when trying to make more general inferences. For instance, exposing cells to smoke or vapour continuously for 3 days, as was done here, does not reflect realistic use conditions. “

Unfortunately, bogus scientific “studies” such as these can go viral quite easily due to an uneducated press that’s more interested in attention-grabbing headlines than in publishing cold, hard facts.  The publishing of anti-vaping clickbait is very common in the United States, but it now seems to taking over Europe, Australia, and other parts of the world, as well.

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