Counterfeit claims

| April 19, 2017

Fake news runs rampant in the vapor industry.

By George Gay

I cannot guarantee that what you are about to read doesn’t include fake news. Partly this is because, not being part of the social media, I’m not certain what fake news is. I had assumed that it was either misinformation, lies or information that, while correct, was no longer new to most people. But having interrogated a member of the Twitterati, I now understand that it is also new information that doesn’t accord with the worldview of the reader.

Given this, I guess the future lies with tailored online news services that deliver to your inbox each day “news” that fits with your prejudices, which you will have described to the service provider and which that provider will have gleaned from snooping on your buying habits and other internet activities.

Although this might sound futuristic and to some dystopian, it is not entirely new. Most people in the U.K. will be aware that one newspaper there will present the news in a way that is different from the way that another newspaper will present the “same” news. Each will present the news as it accords with the generality of the prejudices of its readership, and, of course, the people who buy a particular newspaper will do so because they feel comfortable with the prejudices of the newspaper’s proprietors.

In fact, it could be that news services of the future pandering to the whims of individuals might pose far less danger to the establishment than those that now pander to the whims of groups of people. Individuals can be a nuisance, but groups of people all thinking in the same way can get out of hand. It has happened in the past.

And talking of the past, it is interesting to note that some of the recent debate around fake news and media lies has tended to indicate that once there was a golden period in the past when all news represented the truth. But, of course, the word propaganda didn’t pop into the dictionary during the past few years. The news has been manipulated for as long as news has been disseminated, and no doubt in the future the news services aimed at individuals will be hacked and manipulated.

There are all sorts of reasons why the news is manipulated, but one of the most destructive is that to do with the manipulator’s purporting to act in the best interests of the reader. The tobacco world has been steeped in such manipulation. Some media outlets seem to accept at face value government propaganda about cigarette tax hikes being aimed at “encouraging” smokers to quit and therefore improving their health, whereas the truth is that mostly such taxes and other imposts are levied on cigarettes to fill holes in the budgets that nonsmokers are not willing to fill.

Then there are the rat-droppings-in-illicit-cigarettes stories, and others about how the illegal trade in cigarettes feeds terrorism. Both of these are much-loved by some media outlets because they make great headlines, but they hang on to the truth by their fingernails. At the same time, fake news about oral tobacco has clearly lost its grip.

But probably the most obnoxious flaky fakery is that published as stories that seek to denormalize smokers. What government or organization would seek to denormalize perhaps a quarter of a country’s population? If in a civilized society an attempt were made to denormalize a quarter of the population based on their ethnicity or faith, people, quite rightly, would take to the streets whether they were part of that group or not.

And where the tobacco industry has gone, so goes the nicotine industry. Some days the fake news about e-cigarettes and vaping seems to be in greater abundance than actual news. In part this is fueled by the great lie, perpetrated in the EU and the U.S., that e-cigarettes are tobacco products by dint of their including, in the main, nicotine. At least in the U.S. it can be claimed that this idea has come about through “deeming” regulations; so in a way the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) isn’t saying that e-cigarettes are tobacco products, just that the FDA deems them to be tobacco products. But how can it be possible to build a stable body of regulations on the basis of a product’s being deemed to be something it is not?

Welcome to the world of vaping, where fake news often approaches the surreal. Recently, Michael Siegel, a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health, alluded to the surreal nature of the e-cigarette debate on his blog, The Rest of the Story. Referring to an article published in March in JAMA Pediatrics, Siegel said that the U.S. surgeon general was continuing to lie about tobacco in e-cigarettes. In the JAMA piece, the surgeon general reportedly claimed that e-cigarettes were “now the most commonly used form of tobacco among youth in the United States, surpassing cigarettes, chewing tobacco, cigars and hookah.”

Siegel said the article referred to e-cigarettes as a form of tobacco and to vaping as a “form of tobacco use.” “There’s just one problem with the surgeon general’s claim that vaping is a form of tobacco use: It’s not true,” Siegel said. He went on to say that even if the surgeon general wrongly believed that consuming any product that contained nicotine was a form of tobacco use, then he was still lying to the public. “Under that definition, e-cigarettes are not the most commonly used form of tobacco among youth,” Siegel pointed out. “Potatoes are.”

It is through blogs such as The Rest of the Story that the truth seems to emerge, and perhaps gradually people will start to obtain their news from blogs and social media whereby an individual gradually starts to follow only those people that she trusts.

I’m not sure that this is the way ahead, but I’m sure that it will happen unless the mainstream media changes its ways. One of the problems with the mainstream media is its fixation on what it sees as being objective. But its objectivity is odd—at times just a veneer. Often a story will appear with a headline that asks a question such as, “Is vaping as dangerous as smoking?” These stories then go on to discuss this question by asking a number of people from each side of the debate for their views, which often are little more than opinions. So I suppose the idea is that if you take such people’s opinions and throw them together you build an objective piece. I don’t think this is possible. Additionally, some of these pieces will include sentences such as, “Vaping has shot up by 12 percent.” “Shot up” here is an unnecessary intrusion by the writer. Having presented the figure of 12 percent, the reader can figure out whether this represents a shooting up.

In the case of some stories, the question arises as to whether they should have been published when they were, or whether changes should have been made to the way in which they were presented. A perfectly good piece by Linda Searing in The Washington Post was headlined: “Like smoking tobacco, vaping may increase risk of heart disease.” It went on to report on a study published online at JAMA Cardiology and at the end mentioned a couple of caveats: The study involved a small number of people and investigated only cardiovascular effects. It involved steady, longtime users of e-cigarettes; whether the findings would apply to occasional users was not tested.

The question is, given the small sample and the overwhelming importance of vaping in the fight against smoking, should the piece have been left until a time when more comprehensive data were available? Wow, some will say, with justification, this sounds like a call for the suppression of news. Okay, I admit it, but then the headline should have been changed to something that cannot be read as implying that vaping could present a similar level of risk to that of smoking. And the caveats should have been worked in close to the start of the story.

Granted, it is not the job of mainstream journalists to encourage vaping, but neither in my opinion should they discourage its uptake. Often, people glance only at headings and intros, and such a heading is going to stick in the mind.




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