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Standards Slip at the Times

One does not usually expect shrill, scaremongering journalism, making drastic claims with little or no evidence, from a news source as reputable as the New York Times, but yesterday was an exception.

An article by Matt Richtel entitled "Selling a Poison by the Barrel: Liquid Nicotine for E-Cigarettes" appeared in the Business Day section, making a number of unfounded claims in a tone calculated to inflame public sentiment against the controversial product.

The gist of the article is that children are poisoned if they drink the e-liquid for vaping devices, and this can happen if adults in the household leave such liquids lying around where the kids can get them. Of course there are hundreds of everyday household products that can be dangerous or even lethal if taken internally. Parents and other adults in households where children reside are normally expected to store such products out of the reach of children. When they are careless about this, results can be tragic of course, but this in no way impugns the substances, but rather the negligence of the parents.

One would not blame the manufacturer of a laundry bleach if a child drank it; one would blame careless adults in the household. One would blame the liquid only if one had a particular animus against the product and were trying to drum up public fear against it. Beyond that basic logical and rhetorical flaw, let us look at the specifics of Richtel's claim. "Tiny amounts... absorbed through the skin... can... be lethal."

There is not the slightest effort made to substantiate this claim. The instances of poisoning to which Richtel is referring have involved children drinking the liquid, not absorbing it through the skin. All of them resulted in vomiting, which expelled the substance immediately. Only a small proportion of them required hospital visits, and there have been no fatalities.

The group of European nicotine scientists who wrote collectively to the Commission of the European Union a few months ago, advising on recommended nicotine concentrations for e-liquids, stated that the universal and immediate vomiting reaction would make it a practical impossibility for death to result from ingestion of nicotine liquid.

"Reports of accidental poisonings, notably among children, are soaring. Since 2011, there appears to have been one death in the United States, a suicide by an adult who injected nicotine." The logical disconnect here is laughable. The relationship between a single adult death from injection and a "soaring" rate of poisonings among children by ingestion is not even remotely substantiated, and it is rather shocking that Times editors allowed this one through. These are journalistic standards one expects of tabloids. The paragraph goes on to cite calls to poison control centers.

The same could be said of hundreds of household products. The line "e-liquids are far more dangerous than tobacco, because the liquid is absorbed more quickly" is misleading to a volatile public, segments of which are eager to villify e-cigs. To an uncritical reader, this says 'vaping is more dangerous than smoking' – which is of course nonsense. The literal meaning of the sentence, however, would be that ingested e-liquid is more dangerous than tobacco would be if it were consumed in the same way, which of course it never is. In fact, everybody knows that e-liquid, used as directed, is much less dangerous than tobacco, used as directed.

Then Richtel tells us of a Kentucky woman whose e-cig spilled liquid on her skin, resulting in cardiac problems. No source is given for this anecdote, and the connection between a dermatological trauma and heart trouble seems outlandish. Any claim based on such an odd link between disparate problems cries out for a citation.

Again, where were the Times editors on this one?

And in any case, how would such a case have any bearing on kids drinking the stuff? Veering off further into dermatological issues, Richtel quotes University of California at San Francisco nicotine scientist Neal Benowitz to the effect that gloves should be worn when mixing e-liquid. The same is true of oven cleaner, of course, along with a host of other substances.

Richtel ends by noting that less than a tablespoon of nicotine liquid could kill an adult if she or he drank it. If they didn't vomit, that is.