In mid-September, two articles in prominent news outlets caused an uproar over how the media continues to misunderstand and misrepresent vaping.
The first, published September 15 in The New York Times, was an op-ed by former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao about sexism in the tech industry. The piece mainly focused on Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, the fraudulent blood-testing company that folded in scandal, but also included a long bit about the vaping company Juul.
“In June 2019, Congress began an investigation into Juul’s part in the youth nicotine epidemic, including efforts to market its products as safe for children,” Pao wrote. “By February 2020, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] showed that 68 people in the US had died from lung injury associated with the use of vaping products.”
One can rightfully criticize Juul for many things, starting with its original Vaporized campaign. But the idea that the company caused “e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury” (EVALI)—the injuries Pao referenced—is simply not true. The CDC eventually linked most EVALI cases to illicit THC cartridges—which is to say, not anything ever produced by Juul.
The CDC bears some of the blame for the public’s confusion. Although months went by without a definitive culprit, the agency should have made it much clearer that it had identified vitamin E acetate, a chemical found in those illicit THC vape cartridges, as the primary cause.
Still, the characterization in The Times, however you read it, is at the very least misleading. A person unfamiliar with EVALI could easily come away from that essay thinking that Juul was somehow behind the condition, when—again—there is no data to support that.
A number of public health experts and consumer advocates pointed out the issue, including Danielle Jones, the board president of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association (CASAA), and Michael Pesko, a health economist at Georgia State University. (I wrote the editors an email as well.)
“There is a significant inaccurate belief that e-cigarette products like Juul are the cause of EVALI,” Pesko told Filter. “This is damaging because it discourages adults from trying to quit with e-cigarettes, and it also does not communicate to marijuana users that purchasing from informal sources may put them at risk of EVALI.”
A few days after the op-ed ran, the line containing the claim about EVALI deaths was quietly replaced with: “This summer, Juul agreed to pay $40 million to settle the first of many lawsuits claiming that the company’s marketing practices fueled widespread nicotine addiction among young people.”
An editor in the op-ed department later responded to Jones’s inquiry that “while the sentence you flagged is accurate, we decided that an example regarding marketing to minors was more relevant to our readers. So we swapped in a line that was more appropriate.” Call it a coincidence if you like.
As for Pao, faced with a contingent of activists on Twitter, she appeared to double down.
“We regularly edit web articles to refine the story, add new information, additional context or analysis,” a Times spokesperson told Filter. “We only make note of changes if they involve an error. Making note of every change is unrealistic and would not serve the reader.”
In the case of both articles, the clarifications may have been too late.
Just days after The Times article, The Wall Street Journal reported on a new Truth Initiative campaign, “It’s Messing with Our Heads.” As part of its PR push, the influential tobacco and anti-nicotine nonprofit created a fictional brand called “Depression Stick,” complete with hidden-camera gags, influencer outreach and a billboard in Times Square. It drew a casual relation between depression and teen nicotine use that—by its own admission—does not exist.
In the piece, the reporter quotes the chief creative officer behind the campaign, Mo Said, as saying that “vapes are just diet cigarettes” and that they cause “cancer but a little bit less.”
Days later, the article was updated—and a correction issued—to acknowledge that it had “failed to mention that health authorities haven’t established that e-cigarette use can cause cancer.”
But in the case of both articles, the clarifications may have been too late. Anyone who read The Times op-ed probably has no idea editors revised a sentence that inaccurately reinforced the notion that Juul—now nearly synonymous with vaping to the layman—caused EVALI. Readers of The Journal who finished that story prior to its correction were left with the conclusion that vaping causes “a little” cancer.
Media needs to get vaping right the first time around—especially at a moment when much of the industry is currently collapsing from the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory process. Even as any amount of product authorization stands to help improve the public’s perception of vaping—and finally accept, as countless tobacco control experts, scientists, and public health authorities have insisted, that it is far safer than smoking—missteps in reporting threaten to undo that progress.
Photograph by Adrian Michael via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received unrestricted grants and donations from Juul.