Dr. Jessica Wang-Rodriguez was the lead researcher on a study published in “Oral Oncology” that claimed two e-cigarette products “damaged cells in ways that could lead to cancer.”
The study received a shower of criticism for not representing any real world e-cigarette use. The study’s own press release made clear that it “didn’t seek to mimic the actual dose of vapor that an e-cigarette user would get.” But that didn’t stop major media outlets presenting the study’s findings as if they were.
In wake of hyperbolic media coverage and heavy criticism, Rodriguez wrote this correction which was added to the study’s press release:
Contrary to what was stated or implied in much of the news coverage resulting from this news release, the lab experiments did not find that e-cigarette vapor was as harmful to cells as cigarette smoke. In fact, one phase of the experiments, not addressed in the news release, found that cigarette smoke did, in fact, kill cells at a much faster rate.
However, because similar cell-damage mechanisms were observed as the result of both e-vapor and regular cigarette smoke, Dr. Wang-Rodriguez asserts, based on the evidence from the study, that e-cigarettes are not necessarily a healthier alternative to smoking regular cigarettes. As stated in the journal paper and the news release, further research is needed to better understand the actual long-term health effects of e-cigarettes in humans.
The correction is a substantial departure from the message given out in the original statement. One of Rodriguez’s more eye-catching comments in the release, which remains unaltered and was widely picked up by the media, was “I believe they (e-cigarettes) are no better than smoking regular cigarettes.”
Rodriguez’s opinion is way outside the medical mainstream and a host of public health professionals criticized her remarks.
Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at Boston University School of Public Health with 25 years of experience in the field of tobacco control, said, “not only is this conclusion baseless, but it is damaging to the public’s health. It undermines decades of public education about the severe hazards of cigarette smoking.
“To declare that smoking is no more hazardous than using e-cigarettes, a non-tobacco-containing product is a false and irresponsible claim.”
Nevertheless, her comments were seized on by elements of the media, most notably The Daily Telegraph’s science editor Sarah Knapton who ran with the headline: “E-cigarettes are no safer than smoking tobacco, scientists warn.”
Following the publication of Knapton’s piece, medical statistician Adam Jacobs, writing at Stats Guy, labeled Knapton’s piece the “most dangerous, irresponsible, and ill-informed piece of health journalism of 2015.”
Knapton’s piece came in for even harsher criticism after she tweeted that “all the latest evidence points to e-cig vapor being just as harmful as tobacco.” Rodriguez’s correction will be welcomed by many but the former Director of Action on Smoking and Health Clive Bates was unimpressed.