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Smokes hit new low, Editors fail to credit Vaping

The Chicago Tribune reported yesterday, on the next-to-the-last day of 2014, on a new milestone in the fight against smoking poisonous cigarettes. The smoking of combustible tobacco in the USA hit a new low. In 2013, just 17.8% of Americans smoked cigarettes, down 3.8% during the decade leading up to that, and the first time the percentage has fallen below one fifth of the population.

In 1964, a half century ago, and the year of the US Surgeon General's report definitively linking tobacco smoking to irritating side effects such as death, about one half of US men, and one third of women, were in the habit of lighting up cancer sticks regularly. A half to a fifth in 50 years – not exactly an Olympic sprint, but creditable, nonetheless.

In '64 the public, even informed sources like the Chicago Tribune, resisted the significance of the report. The “Trib” itself shamefacedly confesses that its 60s era writers pooh-poohed the findings of country's head doctor: “While the report on smoking can be accepted as interesting and informative, we do not think there is any reason for anyone to get hysterical, especially the government or some of the most zealous crusaders against smoking in Congress," was the paper's response to the report in '64. “Well, OK, we don't always get it right the first time,” says the Editorial Board in this week's cooperatively written story, a bit sheepishly, but with what seems like true repentance.

The Trib's editors don't acknowledge the probable role of electronic cigarettes in the plummeting rate, and they engage in a bit of obligatory hand-wringing about the rise of vaping among teenagers. The growth of the vaping industry and community during the years studied is a component of signal importance, especially given the notorious failure of approved therapies to produce such numbers before 2007. It is also notable that one of the chief population segments of the decline is the youth market, and the decline coincides with rising popularity of e-cigs among the under-18 set. Come on, editors, two and two equal four!

The editorial board concedes that e-cigs are “probably” less harmful than sucking in tar-laden fumes from burning tobacco – a difference we'd suggest is roughly similar to the difference between a light drizzle and a tsunami – but they fret that “E-cigarettes could make smoking seem normal, even acceptable again. It isn't.”

Their “it isn't” lacks clarity: it isn't “normal or acceptable”? Or it isn't “making smoking seem normal or acceptable”? (OK, to be sure, the latter meaning would properly be expressed as “they aren't,” but the passage still reads confusingly.) Either would be true: not a single data source verifies the much-feared “re-normalization of smoking”, a CDC fantasy that the journalistic community has swallowed hook-line-and-sinker and repeats ritualistically. Not a fact but a factoid. Colbert might say it has “truthiness”.

Nonetheless, thanks are due to the Trib for this New Year's piece. The editors conclude that the best role for e-cigs is “to help regular cigarette smokers taper off.”

Hear hear!