Unhealthful News 116 – Yesterday’s non-news about e-cigarettes

I found a great UN example today, but it was a bad health and productivity day, so writing this post for the THR blog was most of my productivity for the day.  So just a few words now about the news reporting that relates to that one, and I will save the more interesting one tomorrow.

The quick background is that the US FDA announced yesterday that it would regulate electronic cigarettes according the rules used for tobacco products instead of the rules for medicines, as they had wanted.  The latter would have effectively banned e-cigarettes, but manufacturers took them to court, and the court required they do what they just announced they are doing.  For a bit more background, you can read my other post at the link, and for more background still, you can follow the links from that.

Every reporter seemed to have either missed or ignored the fact that this was not a choice by FDA, but something the court had required, and that there was really no information provided about what the critical implementation details will be.  It was kind of an inkblot test for the reader, with e-cigarette supporters typically reading in better news than can be assumed.  Despite that, the Associated Press story by Michael Felberbaum did a nice job of explaining the matter.  Covering the pertinent facts for someone to basically understand the matter, without hype, too much hyperbole, or too many unsubstantiated scientific claims.  It was one of the better short health news stories I have read in a while. 

Extra credit goes to the Philadelphia Inquirer, whose version of the AP story left out the flawed attempt to explain why e-cigarettes are much less harmful than smoking, because they do not contain “the more than 4,000 chemicals found in cigarettes”.  You get used to seeing nonsense like that from anti-tobacco propaganda, but it is pretty lame when news reporters decide to gratuitously throw it into stories.  Here is a hint about counting chemicals:  There are pretty much as many of them as you want to count, if you keep looking hard enough, in most any complex natural substances like tobacco, kale, salmon, children, etc.  Also, the counts of thousands of measured and named chemicals refer to the smoke, which has different properties from the cigarettes themselves.  The New York Times version cut out much of the useful material and left that in.

The Los Angeles Times made the mistake of writing their own story, and dredged up the discredited attacks on e-cigarettes that FDA launched as part of their legal strategy.  The Winston-Salem Journal, which often delves more deeply into tobacco-related stories than any other paper, focused on the reactions of various partisans in a way that was probably cryptic to anyone unfamiliar with the topic.  Most of the television news reports cut for length by leaving out the fact that this was fait accompli, implying it was a policy-changing decision.  This is actually what a lot of my expert colleagues did also, interestingly enough.

As far as I could find, no reporter seems aware of how little the FDA announcement told us about what will really happen (see my THR post for my take on that), other than there will be no immediate ban.  But I get the impression that no one they talked to made any effort to explain to them how uncertain the matter still is, so it is hard to blame them.  In this case, it is not so much that we need a more skeptical press corps, as I often scream, but that we need more skeptical pundits.  The only such analysis I noticed came from two small San Francisco newspapers which suggested (as I did) that this paves the way for treating e-cigarettes like cigarettes in all ways.  Because of recent policy debates there, they focused on including e-cigarettes in place-specific smoking bans.  While this obviously does not logically follow from the FDA policy (the rule is that e-cigarettes will be regulated as tobacco products, many of which are smokeless, not as producers of smoke) it seems like an inevitable rhetorical path.

Bottom line: It really is interesting to see so much reporting about a “groundbreaking” “decision”, some of which included some genuinely good background information, without actually seeing any news reporting.

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