Monday 28 August 2017

Anti-vaping agitprop at the Guardian

An article in the Australian edition of the Guardian has been annoying vapers but the person responsible says she can't understand why.

We have come across Melissa Davey before. Simon Chapman was quick to take her under his wing when she took a Masters in 'Public Health' at Sydney University a few years ago. She has since got a job at the Guardian writing blatantly partisan articles about health policy from the Chapman perspective.

Her latest effort is all the more pernicious for its pretense of balance. On its face, it is about the split in the 'public health' movement over e-cigarettes. Davey implies that this split is somewhere in the region of 50/50 whereas Chapman's prohibitionist stance is extreme and increasingly marginal.

Davey quotes liberally from vaping opponents Miranda Ween, Simon Chapman ('world-renowned tobacco control expert') and Chapman's protégé Becky Freeman. She also quotes from submissions to the government's recent consultation from Cancer Council Australia and the Australian Medical Association, both of which are also in the prohibitionist camp. 

On the pro-vaping side, she quotes Alex Wodak and Colin Mendelsohn. She fails to mention any of the health organisations, such as Public Health England or the Royal College of Physicians, that support vaping but she does quote from Philip Morris's submission to the consultation.

The Philip Morris reference is part of a narrative that portrays e-cigarettes as a tobacco industry plot. Never mind that PMI's focus is on its heat-not-burn product IQOS rather than e-cigarettes. Never mind, too, that the consultation was inundated with responses from ex-smoking vapers, none of which are quoted or even acknowledged in the article. Instead, the phrase 'big tobacco' appears nine times and she ends the piece by writing...

The question of how harmful these products are and whether they can save significant numbers of smokers from a lifelong addiction may still be up for debate. But there is no doubt if the products take off in Australia and become more widely available, big tobacco’s under-pressure profit margins will have some relief.

In fact, there is a great deal of doubt about this. In the UK, where vaping has taken off under a free market, cigarette sales have fallen dramatically and the main beneficiaries have been independent vape shops, such as Totally Wicked. The market is dominated by second and third generation e-cigarettes which tobacco companies have been slow to embrace. Tobacco companies would have a much easier time if the smoking rate had flat-lined, as it has in Australia.

In terms of pure column inches, Davey's article is far from balanced. The image below shows the anti-vaping content versus the pro-vaping content. There is at least twice as much of the former, even if you exclude Davey's own editorialising and focus on quotes from other people.

But there is more to Davey's bias that sheer volume of words. Every claim in support of e-cigarettes is challenged and every fact that goes against her view is given a caveat. For example, she writes:

There are smokers who credit e-cigarettes with having help them quit. The scientific literature, however, suggests they are not all that effective...

The link is dead so who knows what her source is for this claim, but there is ample scientific evidence from clinical trials and observational epidemiology that e-cigarettes work much better than placebos in helping people quit smoking. Davey's implication that the evidence for vaping is purely anecdotal is deeply misleading.

Elsewhere she writes:

A statistic often cited is they are 95% safer than cigarettes, but this has been disputed.

The statistic comes from a Public Health England report but Davey doesn't mention that, presumably because it would confer a degree of credibility upon it. Her source for it being 'disputed' is a Guardian article about a scurrilous Lancet editorial in 2015 which attempted to portray David Nutt and his colleagues as tobacco industry stooges. Aside from this ad hominem attack, neither the Lancet editorial nor the Guardian report offered any reasons to think that the 95 per cent figure was wrong. A subsequent report from the Royal College of Physicians concluded that the risks of vaping ‘are unlikely to exceed 5% of those associated with smoked tobacco’.

There are no such caveats when claims are made by the other side. The reader is told that '[m]any e-cigarette brands are owned by tobacco companies' without been given the context of how many brands available (ie. thousands) or how many are owned by tobacco companies (ie. a handful). Both the 'gateway hypothesis' and the 'dual user 'theory go unchallenged. Davey says that Freeman 'believes e-cigarettes are part of a ploy by tobacco companies to get children used to the idea of smoking'. This is a ridiculous and ahistorical claim and should be treated as such. At the very least, a decent journalist would have pointed out that tobacco companies did not so much as dabble in the vaping market until 2012 - and youth smoking rates have nose-dived in countries where vaping has become popular.

None of this is mentioned in Davey's article. Given this partial and misleading propaganda from one of her former students, it is hardly surprising that Freeman has been one of the few people to commend it.

Nuff said.

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