A 2019 study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) wrongly stated that youth uptake of both smoking and vaping in Canada increased significantly between 2017 and 2018. This conclusion was actually false and the study was corrected in June 2020, but the damage had already been done.
Youth uptake of vaping is a subject which has been deliberated extensively, on a global scale. The potential threat of a rising youth uptake has dominated vaping headlines in various countries including the USA and Canada, resulting in harsh e-cigarette regulations, which affect vapers of all demographics. Frustratingly, these policy changes are almost always either based on flawed research or implemented to suit a misplaced agenda.
Canada Vaping Policies
In Canada, vaping policies have taken a turn for a worse since 2018. In the years prior to 2018, Canada was seen as a progressive country in terms of tobacco control. Similar to the UK and New Zealand, Canada had at that time endorsed e-cigarettes and recognised the role they could play in tackling smoking rates. However, since 2018 a number of district laws have been introduced that are slowly stifling the potential of e-cigarettes. A number of advertising laws, strict product regulation and even tax levies have been brought in regionally. So why exactly did Canadian officials change their tune?
One reason is the raft of headlines which suggested people in the US and Canada were dying from vaping. This affected the global vape industry, despite being untrue, and the real cause of the deaths was later proven to be down to vitamin E acetate; a thickening agent used in illicit THC liquids, and not in nicotine-containing e-liquids used to help quit smoking. Another cause, and the one we are focusing on in this article, is the aforementioned study published in the BMJ.
Flawed vaping research published in the British Medical Journal
The key conclusion from the research stated that youth vaping had increased, but shockingly, that youth smoking rates in Canada rose from 10.7% to 15.5% between 2017 and 2018. This rise in smoking rates would have been very significant, as it would have tied a rise in youth vaping to a rise in youth smoking. This was not good news for e-cigarettes; a tool designed to reduce smoking rates. However, the figures were in fact incorrect, and the actual figures show that the youth smoking rate actually decreased from 10.7% to 10%. This correction was acknowledged by the BMJ in June 2020 but the official correction to the article has been criticised and rendered as inadequate.
Leading vaping advocate, Clive Bates has covered the story in great detail. Bates’ article is titled Canada takes a wrong turn after a flawed paper induces moral panic about youth vaping and smoking. It exposes the flaws and urges policy makers to understand the gravity of the error and its effects. One of Bates’ key points is the insufficient reaction to the discovery of this mistake, which was due to ‘inappropriate weighting’. The correction was made in June 2020; one whole year after the paper was published. Even then, the correction was made via a supplementary file which was tagged on the article and, according to Bates, is all but invisible.
This correction is certainly not obvious and wouldn’t be easy to come across for the majority of people. Quite incredibly, the conclusions of the paper have remained the same. The publication still states that smoking rates of 16 – 19 year olds increased in Canada. This statement is incorrect and has even been acknowledged by the authors, yet the damning and politically important conclusions remain. The BMJ is a very well-respected journal with a strong reputation. The research within it is therefore rightly used to make policy recommendations.
While the inappropriate weighting may have been an honest mistake, the situation has been dealt with completely irresponsibly. The false conclusions from this research without doubt swayed policy decisions made in Canada, even before its formal publication, and have undoubtedly had a negative impact on the perceptions of vaping in Canada. In his scathing critique of the situation, Bates writes:
“Given the political salience of this paper, a proper correction or retraction and resubmission is essential.”
Usually, we are writing this sort of article with the aim of putting right the malicious misinformation spread by anti-vaping activists. However, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of malice in this piece. It’s more a case of incompetence, in terms of the study itself; and a lack of backbone, in terms of the reaction to, and ownership of the mistake. Nevertheless, the impact is just as detrimental, if not more so. It is a prime example of how published studies can influence high-profile policy-makers and potentially result in catastrophic decisions being made which are counter-productive to public health.
E-cigarettes have proven to be immensely effectively in cutting smoking rates but the full potential can only be realised if fair policy and regulation is put in place. It is fortunate that we have Clive Bates and many other advocates fighting vaping’s corner.
At Totally Wicked, we always aim to give you the indisputable facts from the most reputable organisations. If you are thinking of making the switch from smoking to vaping and want more information please visit our ‘Is vaping better than smoking’ page where you will find fact, figures and statements from leading health advocates and organisations including Cancer Research UK and Public Health England.