New York Magazine ran an article this month—in its “Intelligencer” vertical, of all places—with the provocative title: “Who Thought Sucking on a Battery Was a Good Idea? Vaping is a health crisis that has only just begun.”
The author, Stephen S. Hall, produced an anti-vaping screed full of recycled lies heavily sourced from the mouths of three established tobacco harm reduction haters: researcher and tobacco control activist Stanton Glantz; his University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine colleague Jeffery E. Gotts; and Matthew L. Myers, president of the Bloomberg-funded Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Hall writes, “A decade ago, teen smoking was in a 20-year decline. Then vaping arrived. In the past several years, high-school students have become so comfortable with the habit that they no longer feel the need to hide it from their parents, many of whom are now vaping too. You almost can’t walk down the street in any American city without seeing someone take a draw from a pen.”
My first reaction to his piece was to wonder what he was sucking on when he wrote it. Because sucking on an e-cig is a hell of a lot better than sucking on a Newport.
NY Mag’s 6,000-word article isn’t just a mess—it’s much more insidious than that.
Journalist Jacob Grier has already critiqued the piece, calling it “A one-sided mess that fails to convey the complexities of the issue and pays virtually no attention to the needs of current and former smokers whose lives are risk.”
He’s right. But NY Mag’s 6,000-word article isn’t just a “mess”—it’s much more insidious than that. It stands in a long, sordid tradition of journalists participating in drug panics that spread misinformation and confusion, demonize drugs, ignore evidence and support the passage of harmful legislation. Like the journalists who signed on for the crack panic in the 1980s, whose work fueled massive stigma against people who used crack and directly led to racist mass incarceration.
In the case of nicotine and e-cigarettes, the harms of such coverage are different but huge. The US-centered media frenzy around teen vaping has contributed to: flavor bans, the closing of vape shops, stores and pharmacies refusing to carry vaping products, increased taxes on e-cigarettes, India completely banning e-cigarettes (WTF! a country with 120 million tobacco users) and the public wrongly believing that vaping poses a similar danger to conventional cigarettes.
This misinformation has thereby led to untold numbers of smokers who switched to vaping going back to smoking. And for those who continue to vape, access to products that are at least 95 percent less harmful than cigarettes is becoming ever more restricted. These are the real-world, deadly consequences of irresponsible journalism.
Hall’s article piles up so many complicated topics that readers are bound to get lost in the jumble. The piece is simultaneously a medical drama about E-Vitamin Associated Lung Illness (EVALI), a crime story about the investigation into teens who allegedly sold tainted THC cartridges, a critique of companies that make vapes, an explanation of the FDA Deeming Rule and an attack on vaping advocates.
Like countless others have done, Hall conflates EVALI with the use of e-cigarettes in an attempt to confuse and frighten. Vaping nicotine has nothing to do with the illnesses and tragic deaths from vaping vitamin E acetate-contaminated THC cartridges. Still, Hall promotes doubt when he asserts, “About 14 percent of EVALI cases are reportedly nicotine only.” And here’s another example of how reporting of this kind obfuscates the truth: According to a recent poll, 66 percent of US adults still view e-cigarettes as the culprit for EVALI.
The piece front-loads Gotts, a pulmonologist, who believes, “A lot of people are using their lungs as a sewer to get high in a way that really has never been seen before.”
Hitting the panic button on the safety of vaping, Hall interviews only people who are on the record as loathing e-cigarettes. What happened to “both sides” journalism? Hall doesn’t quote one person—not one, among the entire international tobacco harm reduction community—who is pro-vaping.
Instead, the piece front-loads Gotts, a pulmonologist, who believes, “A lot of people are using their lungs as a sewer to get high in a way that really has never been seen before. People are just experimenting with all kinds of crazy new chemicals, and they’re just putting them all in their lungs and seeing what happens.”
Actually, no. People are overwhelmingly vaping two very old and mostly benign drugs—THC and nicotine–to achieve well known effects that include pain relief, decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety, smoking cessation, performance enhancement, relaxation and pleasure.
Then Gotts attacks the research on vaping safety. He arrogantly asserts that the findings from Public Health England and the Royal College of Physicians that vaping is 95 percent safer than smoking is “ludicrous” and that “They just appear to have pulled that number out of thin air.” It was only a matter of time until a tobacco harm reduction hater from UCSF challenged that number, because it’s so reassuring to the millions of people around the world who use e-cigarettes.
Gotts says the risks of vaping are “unknowable.” While the relatively recent emergence of e-cigarettes means that long-term epidemiological evidence has yet to be compiled, all of the available toxicology evidence points to their relative lack of risk. What is “knowable” is the deadly harm of cigarettes. Gotts’s claims are complete rubbish and have been rebutted by Public Health England and researchers from other countries.
Gotts and his fellow tobacco harm reduction hater at UCSF, Stanton Glantz, who has a starring role in Hall’s piece, challenge “95 percent safer” because they are implacably opposed to vaping. To convince smokers not to vape, they’ve unleashed a fear-driven crusade to prove that e-cigarettes are full of toxic chemicals and cause serious harm to human health. Glantz believes that e-cigarettes are “about as dangerous as a cigarette.”
Because he absurdly believes that, he is committed to prohibition and nicotine abstinence, leaving smokers to quit or die. And smokers will die if Gotts’ and Glantz’s lies and junk science continue to be presented as fact by journalists like Hall.
No hit-piece on teens and vaping would be complete without giving Myers space to spread his own propaganda. Hall dutifully complies. Myers warns, “We now know conclusively that kids who start using e-cigarettes are far more likely to go onto smoke cigarettes.” Actually, the idea that e-cigarettes are a gateway to smoking has been conclusively debunked. He declares an e-cigarette “epidemic” again and spanks Juul again. Myers’ maniacal and obsessive focus is on holding the tobacco industry’s past against the vaping industry’s future.
Blame for Hall’s piece must be shared with the publication that published it and with the photographer, Jonas Bardin. The salacious click-bait photos taken by Bardin that accompany the article are part of a long tradition of bias, stigma and sexism in photographing drug users. They prominently feature young women holding vapes in their mouths in ways that are sexually suggestive.
Coco is on the cover and wears three necklaces, bearing her name, a crystal and the Star of David. She has a nose ring and multiple ear piercings. Her bee-stung, pink lips are “sucking on a battery.” Not a good idea! The most disturbing thing about the image is her glazed-over eyes that stare vacantly into the camera and suggest that she’s high. It’s frightening. Coco, are you okay?
Bella is leaning up against a graffiti-covered wall, looking like a cliched depiction of a “good girl gone bad.” Her pouty, pink-glossed lips also “suck on a battery.” Not a good idea! These images sexualize and infantilize both women.
Another photo shows a young Asian man named Wind. He also appears intoxicated—that eye thing again—as vapor drips from his mouth. Wind, are you okay? Wind is not “sucking on a battery,” however—his vape is in his hand, where it would be most of the time.
Wind is quoted as saying, “My grandpa smokes, so growing up around that I told myself I wouldn’t touch cigarettes. Junior year, my best friend was like, ‘You should get Juul.’ Now I’m at a point that when I don’t have the vape, it’s all I can think about.”
“Brooding, painful or zombie-like depictions are more dramatic, and communicate the article’s desired message that young vapers are victims.”
This is where Hall engages in a core feature of drug-panic discourse, in which the most extreme cases of dependence are framed as typical. It’s impossible to find a mainstream media story about a young person who vapes in which their vaping isn’t portrayed as chaotic and out-of-control. Yet the evidence shows that most US youth who vape do so infrequently, usually five days or fewer per month, and are in no way dependent.
If vapes didn’t exist, it’s likely that young people like Wind would seek nicotine through cigarettes. Wind had a choice that his grandpa did not, and made the right choice. He is, in fact, practicing a lifesaving form of harm reduction. And Wind, if your grandpa is still alive, get him a vape starter kit. Teach him how to use it and vape together.
None of the images show teens smiling, laughing or happy while vaping. Because brooding, painful or zombie-like depictions are more dramatic, and communicate the article’s desired message that young vapers are victims of Big Tobacco. The choice not to show groups of vapers or a range of expressions is a final piece of sophistry. The reality is that vaping, for many teens, is rebellious, fun and a social activity—just like the other drug use that most will engage in less as they grow older.
Hall’s article and Bardin’s photographs are pure propaganda. New York Magazine’s decision to publish them stands in the disgraceful tradition of systematically misinforming and deceiving the public in order to promote a deadly drug war.
Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash.