On May 5, Rochelle Walensky, the director of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), announced her departure from her role, effective June 30. This prompted President Biden to laud “her steadfast and unwavering focus on the health of every American.”
Her tenure, which began in January 2021, will be most widely remembered for controversies over the CDC’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which brought criticisms and self-acknowledged failures.
But what must not be overlooked is the agency’s approach to safer alternatives to combustible tobacco use—something that causes COVID-scale death tolls in the US every single year.
Under Walensky’s leadership, the CDC has done its utmost to deter Americans from switching to safer nicotine products which can help them quit. This prolongs smoking harms rather than reducing them.
In December 2022, an editorial published in the journal Addiction (authored by a group of public health experts from five major US universities, as well as the Iowa Attorney General) criticized the CDC and US Surgeon General for tolerating misinformation about vaping.
The authors highlighted an advisory from the Surgeon General earlier in the year, which itself declared that “[h]ealth misinformation is a serious threat to public health” and that countering it “is a moral and civic imperative.” The authors then noted that the CDC continues to falsely attribute a 2019 outbreak of lung injuries, misnamed “EVALI” (E-cigarette, or Vaping Product, Use Associated Lung Injury), to nicotine vaping products.
Throughout Walensky’s tenure, the CDC was content to sit by and allow widespread misinformation to prevail.
This was not the first time that the CDC had been urged to stop spreading false information about vaping. In 2021, a group of 75 multidisciplinary experts wrote to the agency to ask that it clarify that nicotine vaping was not to blame for the 2019 outbreak—in light of long-established evidence that vitamin E acetate in adulterated illicit THC vape cartridges was the main culprit. The CDC declined to do so.
Throughout Walensky’s tenure, the CDC was content to sit by and allow widespread misinformation to prevail in the media and amongst conflicted academics.
Then, there was the astonishing CDC Zoom event in October of last year, which shattered the façade of the agency as an objective broker of honest science. Instead of an exercise in information-sharing and impartial analysis, the meeting resembled collective activism—with the CDC working in partnership with anti-vaping groups to perpetuate the beloved media falsehood of an “epidemic” of youth vaping.
Walensky was no doubt appalled by the myriad conspiracy theories about COVID vaccinations, and the CDC has spoken of the dangerous consequences of misinformation which deters many from taking vaccines to protect against the disease. Yet, under her leadership, CDC misinformation has contributed to a shameful situation.
According to the US National Cancer Institute HINTS survey, a pitiful 2.6 percent of the US public correctly believe that vaping is “much less harmful” than smoking cigarettes—a figure that has declined. This ensures that many people will continue to smoke because of being poorly informed of the relative risks.
That is not a trivial concern. A National Bureau of Economic research paper last year estimated that the CDC’s refusal to accurately report the cause of the 2019 lung injury episode will lead to “450,000 life years lost due to deterred smoking cessation.”
Walesnky’s departure could be a golden opportunity for a new broom to sweep the agency clean of misinformation peddled on her watch.
Steadfast and unwavering focus on the health of every American? Not when it comes to people who smoke, disproportionately from low-income and other marginalized backgrounds, who lose their lives at a rate of almost half a million per year.
The CDC’s credibility has nosedived in recent years, and the public’s faith in its pronouncements has been shaken. Whoever comes in to succeed Walensky at the helm of the agency faces numerous pressing tasks. But after years of politically motivated messaging, accurately conveying the relative risks of different nicotine products—when vapes are demonstrated to outperform NRT for smoking cessation—should be an absolute priority.
The bar has been set very low. For tobacco harm reduction, Walesnky’s departure could be a golden opportunity for a new broom to sweep the agency clean of misinformation peddled on her watch. If only we could trust the people who will be appointing her successor.
Image of CDC logo via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain