Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Discovery & Correction of An Error in the 2019 National Health Interview Survey Release


I recently discovered a critical error in the 2019 National Health Interview Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Here is the story.

When the CDC announced the release of the 2019 NHIS on September 23 here, I downloaded and began using the data.  Right away, I discovered an error that made accurate population estimates impossible.  The flaw essentially underestimated the U.S. population by about 100 million.    

I phoned the CDC and was told that staff would investigate the matter.

The CDC typically releases data as a mass of numbers that cannot be used without a statistics program.  The agency provides computer code for three common programs (named SAS, SPSS and Stata) that help researchers massage the data into usable form.  The codes consist of several thousand lines of directions written in the language of each statistics program.  I found a single line of erroneous code in the SPSS input statements.  On September 25, I emailed my CDC contact with details of the problem and the solution.  He replied on September 28, “We do have an error in our program that is affecting the total population and the point estimates.  We are working on a fix and will re-publish the SPSS program soon on our website.” 

On September 29, the CDC corrected its error.  The only acknowledgement of the correction was a message sent to members of the NHIS Users email list.  The agency failed to make note of the correction on their website, and did not change the date stamp on the page, which still reads, “Page last reviewed: September 23, 2020,” rather than September 29, as it should.  This is inadequate, as many users will not be aware of the error; if they use the original program, their work will be inaccurate. 

The NHIS is the premier instrument for assessing the health of the nation.  For decades, the CDC has used the annual NHIS to count the number of current and former smokers, and the surveys are a valuable source of health-related information for researchers across the globe.  The CDC should better document its errors and corrections.


Thursday, September 24, 2020

The CDC Nicotine Brain Fallacy


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is out with a false advertisement telling kids that “Nicotine in e-cigarettes can harm brain development.”  The headline says, “It’s not like you can buy a new brain.”  To make it accurate, I’ve added “…for your pet mouse.” 

Let me be crystal clear.  The harm in brain development federal officials talk non-stop about only happens in laboratory torture of mice.  Mouse studies are well known to be of questionable value in predicting human effects.  There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the claim that nicotine causes harm to human brain development, so it is astounding that federal officials traffic in this false narrative.  This nonsense is an affront to 34 million adult current smokers and 55 million former smokers in the U.S., virtually all of whom started when they were teenagers.  There is no evidence that their brain development was harmed, a fact that was specifically acknowledged by a prestigious nicotine researcher Dr. Neal Benowitz at an international tobacco meeting this week.

I have for years catalogued CDC misinformation campaigns regarding smokeless tobacco (examples here, here, here) and e-cigarettes (here, here, here, here).

Today, CDC’s bungling of Covid-19 facts and guidance is pulling back the curtain on that agency’s tragic shortcomings and its readiness to disregard or “warp” the truth. Educated tobacco users have known the CDC has been lying about and to them for years.