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Fine Grained Study Falls Short

Fine Grained Study Falls Short

The press coverage of the currently ongoing conference of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco in Philadelphia is typical of reporting on e-cigarettes. Although the conference features several research papers highlighting potential health benefits of vaping, the press has been mum about those studies. But an article on a 5-year population study by the FDA was deemed to merit coverage, with the caveat that the study "may not be able to capture crucial details about the use of electronic cigarettes." In other words, the study is significant, but provides no useful information.

Of course Stanton Glantz is quoted. "The most fine-grain, comprehensive, highest quality data on tobacco use that has ever been collected," he calls it. Apparently its failure to answer the questions that need to be answered does not trouble the foremost critic of vaping.

The study is called the "Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health (PATH), and data collection on 46,000 people began to be collected in 2011.

The rapid evolution of the industry is given as the reason for the survey's inability to provide useful materials, although one suspects that other factors may be at least equally important. Health policy consultant Scott Ballin calls the PATH data "great", but acknowledges that "it is unclear to me how much is going to be useful." Just so.

Funded by the FDA, the longitudinal study will be presented at Thursday's sessions of the SRNT conference in Philadelphia. It assessed changing trends in the popularity of a variety of products, and collected both subjective responses and physical data on subjects like nicotine exposure. The study displays "unprecedented detail about specific groups of people," says Professor Kurt Ribisl of the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina. This could be useful, he notes, in decision making about products that have special appeal for certain groups, like menthol in African American communities.

The appeal of e-cig flavors to youth is a question that remains beyond the reach of the study, say experts, and it doesn't contain data about nicotine doses, because of the customizable feature of many e-cigs.

By and large, the study seems to stop short of answering the urgent questions about regulating electronic cigarettes, for all its being so fine-grained. All in all an odd selection to single out from the SRNT conference for media coverage. But then, in Ribisl's words: "When you get to e-cigarettes it's really complicated.... It’s a vexing and complex issue."

Indeed so.