Monday, April 20, 2020

CDC’s Misuse of EVALI Misleads Americans That Smoking Safer Than Vaping

In a campaign of disinformation, culminating in the prolonged mischaracterization of the EVALI (e-cigarette, or vaping, associated lung injuries) crisis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has caused more Americans to believe the untruth that vaping is more dangerous than cigarette smoking.

Bentley University economist Dhaval Dave and colleagues at the City University of New York and Cornell have authored an article titled “News That Takes Your Breath Away: Risk Perceptions During an Outbreak of Vaping-Related Lung Injuries,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.  It analyzes the effect of actions taken by the CDC.

Dave et al. describe the federal response to EVALI: “Statements issued by the CDC during the early ‘crisis’ period were direct and clear suggesting that individuals should stop using all vaping products in the late summer of 2019.” (emphasis added). 

The CDC was silent on marijuana until December 10, 2019, when it acknowledged in a tweet that “products that contain THC, particularly from informal sources…play a major role in the current lung injury outbreak.”  The agency had delayed focusing public attention on cannabis products for over three months, as it was clear by early September to many observers, including me (here) and Boston University’s Dr. Michael Siegel (here), that the lung injuries were unrelated to nicotine-based e-cigarettes and vaping products which had been used by tens of millions of consumers for some 10 years with no serious lung problems.    

Figure 5 in Dave’s article, seen above, shows the effect of the anti-vaping misinformation campaign that has been supported since 2012 by the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars from the FDA to the National Institutes of Health to cooperating university researchers.  This scheme has generated hundreds of laboratory and epidemiologic studies reporting exaggerated or downright false vaping harm. 

The chart shows the success of the misinformation campaign from 2012 to 2019.  The percentage of Americans viewing e-cigarettes as more harmful than cigarettes grew at a consistent rate of about two percentage points per year. 

The 2019 EVALI debacle took the public’s fear of nicotine e-cigarettes and vaping products to new heights.  As Dave et al. write, “the immediate impact…was to increase the fraction of respondents who perceived e-cigarettes as more harmful than smoking by about 16 percentage points.”  After the CDC issued its December 10 tweet emphasizing “the role of THC e-cigarette products, e-cigarette risk perceptions were partially revised downwards.”

That downward movement was minimal, as Figure 6 from the analysis illustrates:

Dave et al. generously refer to the CDC’s delayed identification of marijuana as the cause of EVALI as “precautionary” but they suggest that it may have had “unintended consequences. More targeted advice about the risks of THC e-cigarettes might have more effectively reduced the use of those products, potentially preventing EVALI cases. Moreover, the increase in e-cigarette risk perceptions might discourage adult smokers from using e-cigarettes…the increase in e-cigarette risk perceptions might slow the downward trend in youth smoking.”

By not announcing early on that contaminated marijuana products cause EVALI, the CDC increased the number of injuries and deaths.  The agency inaction also discouraged smokers from switching and might have even encouraged teens to smoke.

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