In the tabloid tradition of “If it bleeds, it leads,” The New York Times ignored the lack of peer review and wasted no space on critical analysis when it ran a May 3 article by Matt Richtel titled “Some E-Cigarettes Deliver a Puff of Carcinogens.” (here).
Based on two unpublished studies, the Times reported that “the high-power e-cigarettes known as tank systems produce formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, along with the nicotine-laced vapor that their users inhale. The toxin is formed when liquid nicotine and other e-cigarette ingredients are subjected to high temperatures... This finding suggests that in certain conditions, [e-cigarettes] might expose their users to the same or even higher levels of carcinogenic formaldehyde as tobacco smoke.”
The Times also said the new research shows that when users are “dripping” – placing drops of e-liquid directly onto an e-cig’s heating element – “formaldehyde and related toxins ‘approach the concentration in cigarettes.’”
The studies are the work of Roswell Park Cancer Institute assistant professor Maciej L. Goniewicz, and Alan Shihadeh at Virginia Commonwealth University and the American University in Beirut, respectively. Goniewicz’s article will reportedly appear in the May 15 edition of Nicotine & Tobacco Research, while Shihadeh’s has not been accepted or peer-reviewed anywhere (the Times says it “is being prepared for submission to the same journal”).
The Times story represents a deeply troubling development: the global publicizing of research before publication or even submission to a medical journal.
This high-profile pre-release tactic has become commonplace for anti-tobacco pronouncements from the CDC and other federal agencies. Media outlets give these biased stories wide distribution free of critical analysis or balance.
Historically, release of findings prior to a journal’s publication date was grounds for cancelling an article. In a recent post I suggested that peer review of tobacco research is nearly nonexistent at some journals (here). It is further disappointing that journals are active partners in the selective release of research findings to the public.