Journal Retracts Study That Falsely Associated E-Cigarettes With Heart Attacks

A peer-reviewed scientific journal has retracted a study, published last year, which claimed that e-cigarette users were significantly more likely to have had heart attacks. The move comes months after researchers first pointed out inconsistencies in the original study, including its failure to fully include survey data about nicotine use and health outcomes.

“Given these issues, the editors are concerned that the study conclusion is unreliable,” stated the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA) in a notice published on February 18. “The editors hereby retract the article from publication.”

Troublingly, JAHA said that it was aware of shortcomings in the research before first publishing it, and had requested more analysis from the researchers. It is unclear why JAHA published something without confirming that the authors had adequately responded to these concerns.

The published research, by Dharma Bhatta and Stanton Glantz, claimed that regular cigarette use is “associated with increased risk of having had a myocardial infarction, adjusted for combustible cigarette smoking.”

“The odds of having had a heart attack among daily e-cigarette users were more than doubled compared to people who neither used e-cigs nor smoked cigarettes,” Glantz wrote last year. “E‐cigarettes should not be promoted or prescribed as a less risky alternative to combustible cigarettes and should not be recommended for smoking cessation among people with or at risk of myocardial infarction.”

Glantz, of the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, is a prominent and outspoken opponent of researchers who contend that vaping is vastly safer than smoking and has a positive overall public health impact.

Other nicotine researchers noticed the problems with his study as soon as it was published. Two University of Louisville scientists, Brad Rodu and Nantaporn Plurphanswat, reviewed Glantz’s data and realized that the majority of the cohort had suffered a heart attack on average a decade before they ever started vaping. In other words, there was no relationship between a history of heart attacks and e-cigarette use.

“The main findings from the Bhatta-Glantz study are false and invalid,” they wrote to JAHA to alert them of the errors. “Their analysis was an indefensible breach of any reasonable standard for research on association or causation. We urge you to take appropriate action on this article, including retraction.”

During the peer-review process prior to publication, admitted JAHA this week, “the reviewers identified the important question of whether the myocardial infarctions occurred before or after the respondents initiated e‐cigarette use, and requested that the authors use additional data … While the authors did provide some additional analysis, the reviewers and editors did not confirm that the authors had both understood and complied with the request prior to acceptance of the article for publication.”

Last month, 16 more nicotine and tobacco researchers had written to JAHA echoing Rodu and Plurphanswat’s concerns. The journal claims that it was conducting a review of the study throughout this time, and finally completed it.

Unfortunately, by helping to spread misinformation about e-cigarettes, the study had already done damage.


Photo by Lindsay Fox via WikiMedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is an editorial fellow at Filter.

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