The news cycle is utterly broken. Mainstream outlets are happy to peddle fear one day and report on the consequences of misinformation the next, as though someone else was responsible.
Manufactured outrage over vaping is nothing new. The press has been eagerly taking pot shots at the industry for the best part of a decade, despite a growing body of evidence that suggests vaping is significantly less harmful than smoking and the most effective way to quit for good.
Recent data from the ONS tells us that there’s almost 7 million smokers in the UK. Approximately half of those people will die from related diseases if they continue to smoke. Finding a viable, less harmful alternative is one of the biggest public health goals of our time. Sowing fear about vaping may actually kill people.
We are currently living in extraordinary times. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the media’s duty to provide the public with accurate information has never been more important. In a news ecosystem increasingly dominated by social media, where fake stories can spread at an alarming rate, we need information we can trust.
Unfortunately, mainstream outlets find it much easier to garner clicks with outrage than diligent reporting. The decline of news journalism has severely eroded public trust, with just 28 percent of the British public trusting news as of this year, according to The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism Digital News Report 2020.
As someone in the vaping industry, I have looked on in disbelief for years, as mainstream media’s catalogue of sensational anti-vaping articles grows, often citing dubious studies, or one in a million cases, as reasons to be wary of vaping.
A Google search demonstrates the issue perfectly.
Among hundreds of pages of results, overwhelmingly we see negative stories displayed. They range from questioning Public Health England’s stance, to erroneously conflating nicotine vaping with illicit THC products, which caused deaths in the U.S.
Many mainstream anti-vaping stories feature now-retired professor Stanton Glantz as an expert, who famously had a study retracted, after a panel of 17 peers noticed severe flaws in methodology and called for action to be taken.
Strangely, the retraction of this deeply flawed study was not given the same sensational headline treatment. Perhaps it’s too much to ask for due diligence or balanced reporting in our news.
The most recent story covered by the big UK outlets? “Vape use falls by 400,000 in 12 months – as unfounded health fears scare people from using e-cigs to quit normal cigarettes”
The “unfounded health fears”, which are turning smokers away from vaping, are being perpetuated by the media ad nauseam. When their reporting starts to have a tangible impact on the public, these outlets behave as though they’re not part of the problem.
Fear is a powerful emotion. It used to sell papers, but now it encourages us to click on links, stare at ads and provide data points for engineers to more efficiently capture our attention.
User impressions are incredibly valuable. Our collective disgust or agreement with any given article simply isn’t part of the equation. From a pure business perspective, it therefore makes sense to generate as much emotion as possible.
You may have noticed a distinct overuse of emotive language in this piece. I might tell myself that it’s a clever dig at the hyperbolic nature of other outlets, but perhaps I have a deep-seated desire for your clicks, too.
The consequences of fear mongering can manifest in many ways.
In the UK, we are already seeing people turn away from a potentially lifesaving technology because of misinformation. In the U.S, this same narrative has been co-opted by legislators. After a ban on flavoured vapour products, there was a sudden rise in smoking rates in San Francisco. In this case, we can clearly say that misrepresenting vaping causes harm.
Vaping is a difficult subject to cover. On one hand, it has the potential to save millions of lives and make combustible tobacco a thing of the past. On the other, we must encourage more research and find a way to report findings in a balanced way.
For now, it seems we can’t entirely trust the media to do this. In the meantime, you can always keep up to date with the latest studies from trusted organisations like Public Health England and ASH UK.