This story summarizes arguments on the benefits and harms of e-cigarettes, also called “electronic nicotine delivery systems” or ENDS, as gleaned from a recent conference in Abu Dhabi. While it effectively communicates the opinions of a number of experts on these issues, the story is light on actual data and fails to reference or convey the findings of the many recent studies that address the questions raised in the story.
The growing popularity of e-cigarettes presents society with opportunities as well as risks. First, relying on ENDS instead of traditional cigarettes may well be the lesser of two evils (as suggested by this report from the UK government) for those who would otherwise continue to smoke tobacco (although the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services emphasizes that ENDS are not regulated and may not be safe). ENDS may also be a more effective alternative to established smoking cessation interventions that rely on nicotine gum, patches, or other medications. Another issue raised by the story is whether e-cigarettes pose a risk to teen users who wouldn’t otherwise take up tobacco products. This is important, since tobacco companies (who have bought several leading brands of ENDS) are promoting these new nicotine systems with flavors and other enticements attractive to youth. The bottom line is that there are a lot of questions here that demand solid, evidence-based reporting to help readers make sense of what we know and what we don’t.
We are disappointed that the story did not give any direct costs for tobacco cigarettes, e-cigarettes, or smoking cessation aids such as nicotine gums and patches.
The story does bring cost into the discussion when it quotes a researcher noting that increasing tobacco prices has an effect on consumption. “For every 10% increase in tax you have 4% reduction in tobacco consumption.”
But it would have been easy to attach some real numbers to the claim: A pack per day smoker of tobacco spends roughly $2,500 per year, according to a reference we found at NerdWallet
Consumption of a similar number of e-cigarettes from a rechargeable device would cost about $600, the same story said.
The story suggests that e-cigarettes could be a better alternative to combustible tobacco. It walks us through many different points of view on the topic, but its quantification of potential benefits isn’t satisfactory. The story notes, for example, that a third of smokers trying to quit turn to e-cigarettes, and that ENDS are “about 60% more effective than going cold turkey or buying nicotine replacement therapy over the counter.” But since the success rates for the other approaches are never stated, it’s impossible to tell just how big that 60% improvement is. Providing the actual success rates of those who quit with ENDS compared with other approaches would’ve given readers the best perspective on the size of this potential benefit.
On the harms possible from e-cigarettes, the story was not as thorough as it could have been. For example, there is a growing scientific literature on known harmful molecules in the vapor. Nickel, for instance, is in some ENDS vapor and is known to be harmful in other inhaled scenarios. Concerns have also been raised about the quality of different brands of cartridges and the batteries used in some devices, which have in rare cases been reported to catch fire.
But we acknowledge that the story took the time to quote different experts by name and let them make their harms arguments, so we’ll award a satisfactory rating. Jean-Francois Etter, professor of Public Health at the University of Geneva, urged people to see the benefit of e-cigarettes in cutting smoking as outweighing their harms. Another expert argues that while they may benefit adults who are trying to quit traditional smoking, “[they] should not be used by youth and adult non-tobacco users because of the harmful effects of nicotine and other risk exposures. ” He adds that “Exposure to nicotine can harm adolescent brain development.”
This story links to a couple of studies and quotes some expert sources at length, but it doesn’t give readers any real insight as to the evidence underlying the issues being discussed. The briefest of searches yielded a number of studies, including randomized controlled trials and longitudinal studies, as to the effect of e-cigarette use on improving smoking cessation rates — one of the major benefits suggested by the story. Delving into that research would have strengthened the story considerably.
There was no disease mongering.
The story showed good initiative in chasing down and quoting a variety of experts.
The story did not describe the efficacy of alternative smoking cessation methods (e.g. nicotine gum and patches), but it did at least mention some.
All of the products discussed are readily available.
The story notes that e-cigarettes have been around since 2006, and that there is growing debate as to the balance of benefits and harms surrounding their use.
There is enough original reporting here that we can be sure the story does not rely on a press release.