The hook for Gross’s article was how badly the E-Cig Summit audience treated one of the speakers, and how this shows that “Big Vape is copying Big Tobacco’s playbook”. Frankly, it was an alarming read, and of course it’s being held up as evidence that vaping is just the next campaign in the long war against the tobacco companies. For example, notorious anti-vaping activist Stanton Glantz mentioned it on his blog. Lots of people in the tobacco control article have made very enthusiastic noises about this article.
Unfortunately there’s just one slight problem with it – the vast majority of it is total nonsense, and the bits that are true are the parts that Gross is trying to attack. In fact all the article’s alarmist claims about the dangers of vaping are well past their sell by date, and the whole narrative it presents is based on something that is, to put it mildly, not entirely true.
Setting the scene
Gross opens with the sad tale of Professor Samir Soneji, an academic at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College. Prof Suneji, according to Gross, “figured that people who came to a conference about the science and regulation of e-cigarettes actually wanted to hear the latest science,” so he gave a presentation to the E-Cig Summit explaining how e-cigs make kids more likely to start smoking and placing much of the blame for this on flavours. Imagine how hurt he must have felt when the ungrateful wretches booed him for mentioning this important new research!
The article went on to discuss a wide range of negative studies on vaping, and cast doubt on Public Health England’s comprehensive review by repeating the long-debunked claim that it suffered from links to the tobacco and vaping industries. It dredged up every alarmist claim you could think of – aldehydes, ultrafine particles, popcorn lung, the lot. Gross fawned on the partisan report by sacked former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, and insinuated that there are links between modern e-cigarettes and tobacco company projects from the 1960s.
In short, the article piled up every piece of anti-vaping research Gross could find and then topped it all with an outraged whine about how nasty e-cig advocates are to poor, well-meaning public health activists who only want to help us. Is it any wonder that he was booed?
Time for a fact check
Actually, let’s leave that question for a second, because I’ve thought of a better one. Was Suneji, in fact, booed at all? Well, he says he was. Gross says he was. Everyone I’ve spoken to who was at the E-Cig Summit, however, says he wasn’t. Yes, he faced some fairly hostile questioning – hardly surprising in light of what he said – but attendees are adamant that he wasn’t booed. At some point videos of the summit will be released and we’ll be able to see for ourselves, but my guess is that there were no boos. The occasional audible gasp of surprise or outrage? Yes, I can imagine that happening. Booing? Sorry, but I don’t believe that.
There’s no question that Soneji’s talk didn’t go down well, Gross describes how he was accosted several times by audience members who had issues with his presentation. The problem is, she’s suggesting that this was some kind of attack on an objective scientist by irrational vaping zealots. In fact it was a predictable reaction by a well-informed audience, many of them public health professionals themselves, to a blatantly skewed paper filled with factual inaccuracies. We know that aldehydes are only produced under the dry puff conditions that most vapers experience once, then avoid like the plague. We know that popcorn lung has never been diagnosed in a smoker despite cigarettes containing far higher levels of diacetyl, the chemical that’s believed to cause the disease. We know that to “prove” e-cig vapour contains dangerous levels of benzene, researchers mixed their own liquid and deliberately added massive quantities of benzoic acid to the mix. We know that the claim e-cigs cause heart disease by releasing ultrafine particles is just the ravings of an obsessive campaigner who has never studied medicine in his life.
All the potential health risks Suneji mentioned were investigated long ago and found to be either wildly exaggerated or simply not true. It’s hardly surprising that, when he repeated the claims the audience have been working to debunk for years, they weren’t too impressed by what he had to say. Gross describes the response as “attacks” on Suneji, but it seems the truth is simply that people told him he was wrong. Which he was.
Gross goes on to demonise nicotine, subtly attacking the fact that in the doses vapers inhale it’s about as safe as caffeine. She smears long-time harm reduction advocates like Bill Godshall of Smoke-Free Pennsylvania and Brad Rodu, implying that their support for vaping is a ploy on behalf of the tobacco industry. She conflates safe products like snus with traditional chewing tobacco, and she portrayed other vaping advocates, notably Aaron Biebert, as right-wing libertarian extremists determined to attack the public health industry. Repeatedly, throughout the article, she drums home the message that “Big Vape” is now using the same tactics as “Big Tobacco” did in the 1960s – and she’s not above suggesting that Big Vape and Big Tobacco are, at least some of the time, the same people.
Propaganda, not science
Put bluntly, Gross is talking nonsense. Her article is a grotesquely warped propaganda screed, which repeats debunked claims and dismisses or smears more objective research. It was published in The Verge, a technology news site owned by Vox Media Group. Vox seems to have something of an obsession with the idea of “Big Vape”; a couple of years ago an article on its flagship site, Vox.com, sparked a similar furious reaction from vapers. Of course Vox Media in general, and The Verge in particular, are not high-impact medical journals; they’re just clickbait websites. There’s no inherent reason for them to be taken seriously. The problem in this case is that Liza Gross is a senior editor at PLoS Biology, a highly respected, peer-reviewed, open access science journal. That gives her skewed opinions on vaping a veneer of credibility.
But it shouldn’t. Following the article’s appearance, the American Council on Science and Health took a closer look at PLoS Biology’s editorial board. There are nine editors in all, and eight of them are scientists with very strong backgrounds in biology. The ninth is – you guessed it – Liza Gross.
Gross, like Stanton Glantz, has no scientific or medical qualifications of any kind. Her highest level of education is a BA in political science, and her previous journalistic experience consists of working for Wine Spectator, Parenting Magazine and the environmentalist activist magazine Sierra. She is not a scientist; she is an activist who seems to have a particular hostility to industry and any research funded by it. People like Gross paint this as a crusade against conflicts of interest, but the reality is most research funding comes from industry. There isn’t any sinister motive behind this fact; it’s simply because businesses need science to make new products, and funding a university is cheaper and easier than setting up their own lab. The company gets their research, the university gets the funding it needs to carry on doing science, and everything ends up in the academic journals. Industry funding of research is a good thing.
Activism masquerading as science is not a good thing, and Liza Gross’s atrocious article is a perfect example of why it’s so damaging. The Verge gets thousands of page views per day, and for someone who doesn’t know the subject, Gross’s piece makes a compelling case. If a reader researches Gross herself they’ll find that she’s an editor at a respected journal, adding even more credibility. The result is likely to be a lot of people who take her claims at face value. Some will advise family members not to switch to vaping, which means they’ll keep smoking; others will keep smoking themselves.
Either way people will die, and it will be Liza Gross’s fault. They will die simply because she doesn’t like industry, doesn’t like vaping and doesn’t like the scientific method. This is totally unacceptable. It’s time for anti-harm reduction activists to just shut up and stop misleading people.