We hear a lot these days, especially from politicians, about “following the science” – which must be a lot better, surely, than merely following the politicians. But it’s not unproblematic.
There’s the all-too-common problem of science following the politics. And then there’s the simple fact that with an awful lot of science out there, that includes a lot of awful science. Which gives the politicians, the regulators, the media et al the difficulty of choosing which science to follow.
The world of e-cigarettes is endlessly fascinating partly because of the constant game of tag between science and politics/regulation – and the companies that may have a financial stake in either or both.
The most fundamental scientific fact about e-cigarettes is that they haven’t been around long enough for anyone to know what their long-term effects on either individual or public health may be. But that doesn’t stop commentators on both sides of the argument (politicians, media, companies etc) from proclaiming loudly and often that they are either (a) really, really bad for you; or (b) the world’s salvation from the evils of smoking.
For the media generally, the shock-horror story is sexier, which may explain why any scan of the world’s press will tend towards the “e-cigs are bad” view. Which in turn colours public opinion and politics.
And, it would seem, the science – at least the science which gets most media attention.
Affairs of the heart
Take this latest piece of intriguing-sounding research conducted at the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University. Headline: “Vaping has long-term effect on heart for males, not females”.
Apart from the instant question of how long-term “long-term” means, this sounds like a bit of a heart-stopper for half the species. How come the girls get away with it, eh, guys?
Read below the headline and it gets worse. The study, the report says, “gives insight into what happens to the cardiovascular system of adolescents when they vape”. And adolescents (a.k.a. “youth”) are, as we all know by now, the people whose safety from vaping is of most concern to politicians, media, mums and dads everywhere.
Hang on a moment, though. The “adolescents” in question here are adolescent mice. Which are obviously far more like adolescent humans than older humans are…
So being “exposed to an e-cigarette aerosol mixture of propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin and nicotine” is bad for the hearts of young male mice, but no bother at all to young female mice. That must make you feel a lot better about your vaping habit, eh, girls?
A question of funding
Whether this is a genuine, repeatable – though for now inexplicable – discovery or simply one of those random, chaotic, essentially meaningless “findings” that science throws up more often than its publicists would like you to believe, it is hard to see how it advances useful knowledge about the effects of vaping on human beings. Or how it can justify any headline that might imply otherwise.
There’s a clear point here about how science is presented – and there’s another one about how it’s funded, and what it takes as its starting point.
There is some legitimate concern about science paid for by commercial companies with a vested interest in the outcome (or apparent, reported outcome). But you might also raise an eyebrow at the $5.5m grant from the American Heart Association to Ohio State for research “focused on the most effective regulations to reduce the appeal and addictiveness of e-cigarettes for youth and the best methods to help youth kick their addiction to e-cigarettes”.
Nothing like starting with an open mind, is there?
– Aidan Semmens ECigIntelligence staff
Photo: Karsten Paulick