Common sense fails to cross the Atlantic
One of the more interesting and positive things to come from the current coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis has been the positive engagement Totally Wicked has had with stakeholders in UK public health. We have been working with two major Metropolitan Councils, two large County Councils, and a number of smaller organisations. Projects have ranged from Skope S e-cigarette and Switz e-liquid provision for online and telephone supported quit attempts, to the supply of Totally Wicked byte vape pods for homeless people that need to be off the streets. With smoking prevalence generally estimated at around 80% among the homeless population, we know this will be an important help.
At the same time as this, smoking cessation stakeholders have been encouraging smokers to use their time in lockdown to quit, with the #QuitForCovid campaign, and in all cases we know of, the support comes from enlightened “vape friendly” advisors and services. ASH and NCSCT have been particularly active in promoting this amazing drive.
Coronavirus (Covid-19) and nicotine
There have been some suggestions that nicotine might provide a protective effect against coronavirus infections and severity, but even if that does turn out to be the case, we have to remember that smoking results in the loss of well over 70,000 lives a year in the UK alone, every year. Whatever way we look at it, any day has to be a great day to quit, and the UK’s most popular and effective quit aid is now very widely embraced. But a look across the Atlantic to the USA shows a picture that is harder to swallow than Donald Trump’s medical advice for COVID-19 victims.
Public health, campaign groups, and vaping in the USA
In the bizarre post-truth USA of 2020, a group of organizations are so blinded by their hatred of vaping, and so fearful of a youth vaping epidemic that has never actually happened, and almost certainly never can, that they have abandoned any sense of reason to make sure that vape fails. Disturbingly, it seems they are winning, because they believe if you are determined that you have claimed the moral high ground, then you can tell the wildest lies without ever being called out. In fact in many cases they can be the only voice on the subject in the mainstream press, and have wide political support. Thus the devastation of smoking cessation through vaping in the USA continues, when the ‘States had been an absolute world leader.
The organisations in question are Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids (CTFK), Parents Against Vaping and E-Cigarettes (PAVE), and an organisation that calls itself, I have to assume with no irony intended, the Truth Initiative. Many of these are funded by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, a well-known opponent of nicotine harm reduction through vaping, and have openly and cynically used the tragedy of coronavirus and COVID-19 as an opportunity to drive vaping out of the US.
Want to be heard? Hijack a tragedy!
As the pandemic threat became recognised as very real, rather than promoting healthy behaviours such as smoking cessation, a US National Medical Association (NMA) webinar was held with the title “COVID-19: Accelerating the urgency of anti-vaping initiatives”. Exploiting international panic, Laurie Rubiner of CTFK peddled an invented a story of greater COVID-19 infection risk and harm for vapers without the slightest hint of evidence. Not an assumption, not an estimate, just an outright lie.
Updated: 12th August 2020
In August, researchers at Stanford University claimed that vaping increases the risk of teens and young people contracting Covid-19 by up to 7 times. The story reached headlines here in the UK despite some vital discrepancies in the findings.
The research suggested that ‘ever vaping’ resulted in a heightened risk of contracting the virus. The same research showed that current vaping (vaped in the past 30 days), had no effect on the risk of contracting the virus. This is scientifically illogical. If ‘ever vaping’ was damaging the lungs and making teens more susceptible to Coronavirus then surely current vaping would be having at least an equally harmful impact.
Leading tobacco control and health expert, Dr Konstantinos Farsalinos critiqued the research and used the following analogy to expose the ludicrousness of the conclusions: “Ever (but NOT current) vaping linked to COVID-19. Similar to saying that ever (but not daily) eating bacon is linked to obesity!”
Farsalinos also unravelled a statistic in the data collation which seemed very hard to believe. According the research ‘approximately 40% of all US diagnostic tests for COVID-19 up until May 14 were performed in 13-24 year olds’. This unconvincing statistic simply reduces the credibility of the conclusions drawn by the researchers; in what seems to be yet another shameless attempt to use this devastating pandemic as a vehicle to undermine the US vaping industry.
On the back of the dubious research, lawmakers have written to the FDA commissioner, requesting that vaping products are temporarily withdrawn from the market.
FDA fails to communicate clear truths, again
Somehow this obvious untruth had also infected the USA’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with a spokesman telling Bloomberg News on 27th March that those at increased risk for complications from COVID-19 included “…people who smoke and/or vape tobacco or nicotine-containing products.” A later statement corrected this misinformation, but by then, the damage had already been done. Anti-vaping zealots had successfully created a post-truth link between vaping and increased coronavirus risks, despite strong emerging evidence that, if anything, the absolute reverse of this genuinely appeared to be the case.
Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids “get the boot in”
Early in April the anti-vaping movement rallied fast, and amid the confusion of New York struggling to come to terms with just how hard its population and hospitals were getting hit with COVID-19, a bill was rushed through to ban the sale of flavoured vaping products by the New York State Assembly. While this knee-jerk legislation to address a non-risk was being put in place without public consultation, vape shops were being closed as part of lockdown measures, and CTFK’s President Matthew Myers was getting the boot in to make sure they were not to reopen. Yet again, taking the moral high ground allowed an anti-vaping activist to lie with complete impunity about youth uptake, and to claim that e-cigarettes are unproven in their effectiveness as a quit aid. A public statement was released including (but certainly not limited to) the following untruths:
“…over 5 million kids use e-cigarettes and there is mounting concern among public health experts that smoking and vaping can worsen the effects of COVID-19. Vape shops should not be allowed to exploit a lung health crisis to push products that harm your lungs…and they have not been proven to help smokers quit.”
“White lies”, or misleading fallacy to get your own way?
Almost every part of the argued reasoning was based in fallacy. The youth uptake figures quoted were actually for young people that have ever tried an e-cigarette, not that vape. Regular use among 11-18 year olds is less common than smoking, which most appear to have tried first, and generally in larger numbers with a far greater likelihood of long term addiction.
There was no mounting concern among public health experts about vaping and COVID-19, just a cohesive smear campaign from an anti-vaping lobby that put its dogma ahead of objective reasoning. Fortunately a group of public health experts from the UK smartly stepped up and set the record straight on that count, with Dr Caitlin Notley of the University of East Anglia stating clearly and unambiguously, “There is no evidence that vaping increases the risk of infection or progression to severe conditions of COVID-19.”
The 4 million ex-smokers in the UK that currently vape or used to vape can rest easy on reacting to the final statement that vaping does not help people quit. There is very good evidence that vaping is twice as effective as more traditional NRT, but many already know that vaping works, whether anyone else is willing to acknowledge that it helped them to quit or not.
To see such different stories unfolding on either side of the Atlantic is quite remarkable. It seems desperately unjust that so many American smokers will be deprived of an opportunity to find their way to much less harmful products, as it is feared that a large proportion of vape shops will be unable to reopen after lockdown. If they do, it will be to a smoking public that has been given an understanding of e-cigarettes and vaping that is completely at odds with the facts. I hesitate to use the word “truth”, as it does not currently belong to the truthful.
Making a difference to smokers’ lives
I am occasionally left pinching myself to check I’m not dreaming when I think how far we have come in the UK over the 8 years I have worked in vaping. Less than 5 years ago I was continually frustrated that so many important stakeholders didn’t “get it” in the same way that many of us did.
Most of us that did were relatively recent ex-smokers, and that made a bigger difference than I could credit back then. We have endured a long fight to prove that we can make a difference to smokers’ lives and for myself, two things have made it both more bearable and more worthwhile. One of those is the support of the brave advocates that speak out for vaping, sometimes at the risk of career and reputation. The other is that it has been the right thing to do for so many smokers, most of whom are now ex-smokers, and most importantly for any business, customers, now empowered with a life not dependent on tobacco.