The Misinformation and Sensationalism of E Cigs in the Press

Leicester, if you unaware, is one of the most land-locked places in England and is home to Leicester City FC, a Civil War battle in 1645 and the Leicester Mercury newspaper. This is a tale of a place that caused ripples in time, of pride before falls.

If we head back 369 years to the Civil War, we find Leicester to be a den of robbery, rape, wanton destruction, murder, pillage and outrage. Prince Rupert’s forces have breached a wall and swarm into the city creating mayhem; some would tell you that this remains common practice in the city centre every weekend to the current day.

Balls To Stop Smoking Campaign

Fast-forward to 2014, imagine yourself in the packed stands at Leicester City FC’s King Power stadium prior to a match. On the turf is an ageing ex-player with a microphone interviewing a woman called Louise Ross regarding Leicester’s latest mêlée.

Only instead of Prince Rupert we have Andy King, the club’s player ambassador, and the fight is for the hearts and minds of the city’s smokers: Balls To Stop.

The British National Health Service (NHS) is not allowed to promote the use of e-cigarettes as they are not currently classified as medicinal products. Consequently NHS services have been restricted to advising smokers to use nicotine replacement therapies (NRT) or abstention.

Hop into our time machine, we’re going back a few months this time (I bet H.G. Wells never had this much fun).

Louise Ross is the Leicester Stop Smoking Service Manager and fronts up the Balls campaign. As she says in Clive Bates’ blog, “we’ve always had really good sign-up and success rates… until the end of 2012-13. Something happened to the number of calls coming in, and it was like a shutdown that seemed to happen almost overnight. It was of course, e-cigs that had caused this falling-out of faith with what we traditionally offered.”

Lousie Ross - Balls To Stop

Despite the official position of the NHS Louise realised that the change was down to the growth of e-cigarettes.

Enlisting the support of a retailer, a professor at Leicester University and a doctor who wished he could give e-cigarettes to his smoking patients, she arranged a successful E-cig Learning Forum where all service users who reached 4 weeks without a cigarette received a £30 e-cig voucher.

The Balls To Stop campaign successfully recruited representatives from all of the leading lights in Leicester sport and was warmly received by all of the media outlets.

Then came National No-smoking Day.

“During the week, I did several media interviews, including local and regional radio, and for this piece in the Leicester Mercury,” says Louise. “This kind of publicity helps us communicate our new ‘offer’ to local smokers, that we are really keen to support them to stop smoking, whether they want to use licensed products or e-cigs.”

The article in the Mercury carried the pro-ecig message alongside facts such as the £17.8 million estimated cost of smoking to the City each year.

But, in a blog post, Louise hinted at the problem to come: “There is a huge hearts-and-minds job to be done where e-cigs are concerned, partly because of a massive information gap but also because of the misinformation that circulates via hostile media stories and from otherwise credible sources that claim to be speaking up for the health of the nation.”

And the problem arrived, as do we, at the 13th of March. For the following re-enactment of the historic conflict in 1645 The Leicester Mercury will represent King Charles and journalist Peter Warzynski will be playing the role of Prince Rupert.

Professor Jason Hughes

Charles hated Leicester in a way supporters of Nottingham Forest FC pretend not to; Rupert was sent to raze it.

Although the Mercury had previously expressed support for the Balls campaign it all changed when Professor Jason Hughes of Leicester University issued a press release arguing that e-cigarettes will face regulations due to concerns about social dangers, more than physical dangers to health.

It all changed while the erudite and amiable Professor Hughes took a day off work.

The Journalist

Enter stage left: Peter Warzynski (this is the bit where you can boo and hiss if you want to).

Peter, or a bored sub-editor, sexed-up a rather straightforward press release with the title:

“E-cigarettes could be a gateway to harder drugs, says Leicester expert”

E Cigs could be a gateway to harder drugs

The web address for the story was even more laughable reading “E-cigs-fireDevices-outlawed-drug-addiction/story-20822476-detail/story.html”.

Shock headline

After Leicester had been sacked, the King’s smug army started to move South in the belief that they could continue to crush all Parliamentary opposition in front of them.

That was until they reached Naseby – a few miles away from where I’m typing this. It was here they were absolutely crushed by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army (this is the bit we play).

In place of pikes and muskets we used social media, email and inundated the Press Complaints Commission (that oversees press regulation) with ire.

“He said that vaping – a term used to refer to e-cigarette use – encouraged addiction, gave mixed messages about healthy alternatives and could lead to the use of drugs,” wrote Prince Peter Warzynski.

“Oh no he didn’t,” replied everyone who by now had been linked to the press release, read it and listened to the accompanying podcast.

Or, as quoted 74yr-old Sean Gray said: “I think it’s rubbish”.

Just like Cromwell had done, we won the day. By lunchtime the online article had been replaced by a message saying it was under review.

E Cigarette content under review

Come nightfall, like any resistance the Royalist army held, the page could not be found.

E Cig content removed

Professor Hughes returned to work the following morning to find a full inbox, his name littered over Twitter and misrepresented. He took to his blog and penned an article entitled The Power Of Headlines.

In it he, like Louise Ross before him, warns of the power of the words in bold simply reaffirm that “e-cigarettes are ‘guilty by association’ with their combustible counterparts”.

At the end of his piece I’m reminded of the late, great Bill Hicks sketch about good news stories for drugs:

“Here’s a headline you won’t see: ‘Well-meaning e-cigarette restrictions might inadvertently prevent millions of smokers from significantly reducing their chances of contracting tobacco-related illnesses‘.”

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