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Headline inflation strikes again

The scholarly journal Pediatrics has published a study conducted by Dr. Thomas Willis and his colleagues in Hawaii, a study of youth vapers and youth smokers, seeking to establish a behavioral profile of the two groups, and of dual users and non-users as well. The study examined the prevalence of “risk factors” and “protective variables”, and created “risk status” scores in which low numbers represent high risk (elevated risk factors and lower protective factors).

Risk factors included a belief that smokers are popular or that smoking gives self-confidence, mood changes and thoughtless behavior, peer smoking, conflict with parents, sensation seeking, rebelliousness, and substance abuse. On one of the charts, the belief that e-cigarettes are healthier than cigarettes is listed as a “social-cognitive risk factor”. Protective variables included parental support and monitoring, academic involvement and grades, behavioral and emotional self control, and social competence.

The whole point was to determine what smokers are like, what vapers are like, and whether vapers are likely to become smokers. Amazingly, it turned out that non-users are not very much like smokers, with a risk status of 68%. Vapers, it turns out, are a little bit like smokers, risk status 17%. Dual users are a little bit more like smokers, checking in at a 12% risk factor. But the youths that are most like smokers are, you guessed it, smokers. Their risk status is 3%. What wondrous discoveries our tax dollars fund!

These figures permit the scientists to conclude: “The fact that e-cigarette only users were intermediate in risk status between nonusers and dual users raises the possibility that e-cigarettes are recruiting medium-risk adolescents, who otherwise would be less susceptible to tobacco product use.” The “possibility”, mind you. Nothing is proven here, it's just a restatement of Stanton Glantz's conjectured fears (or hopes).

Now look at the headlines of the articles describing this very study in the press! “Worst Fears About Teen E-Cigarette Use Justified, New Data Suggest” is how Healthline News spins it. Or here's a nice one from the UK's Daily Mail: “Could e-cigarettes lead to an 'epidemic of teen tobacco use'? Study warns teens who try 'safe' e-cigs can become addicted”. A search on the term epidemic in Dr. Wills' article comes up with nothing, and the word “addiction” appears only in connection with adult vaping.

So how about the actual texts of these articles? Well, “Worst Fears” actually interviews Dr. Wills.“Our interpretation is that e-cigs may be operating to recruit relatively low-risk people to smoking,” commented the scientist, who says that there is increasing evidence that vaping “increases interest in smoking.” The doctor does not explain how his study, being non-longitudinal, could suggest a change of attitudes.

Every statement in the study and about it remains pure conjecture, and does not justify headlines about proof of anything.