Does Bias and Money Drive Vape Critics?


It’s becoming increasingly clear that the massive misinformation campaign aimed at the vape industry is fueled by a so-called unconscious bias that is regulated by money in the form of research funding.

The Daily Signal is reporting on the current wave of biased studies and reports that are coming out of the medical community as well as anti-smoking and anti-vaping advocates.

A shining example is an email that was sent to Jeff Steir from NYC Quits, a statewide tobacco control organization that operates in New York; its stated goal is to help smokers quit with the use of free nicotine patches and gum. It is also, interestingly, backed by the state government.

Steir ruminated on this fact, saying that the support of the smoking cessation products was alarming, particularly because of the result.

“I got a few free nicotine patches. I was interested in seeing if I could feel the nicotine,” he told in an interview. “But the next morning in the shower, I felt something strange on my skin and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot!’ It was imperceptible.”

Steir went on to say that the patch that he got from NYC Quits wouldn’t deter any smoker from continuing their habit, especially since the nicotine that’s delivered in the patches could be considered trace amounts; it wouldn’t be nearly enough, in Steir’s opinion, to stop any smoker from lighting up.

Yet nicotine patches, like the ones given out by NYC Quits, are just one of four nicotine replacement therapies, also known as NRTs, that are currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration; three of these are only available through a prescription. These include Nicotrol NS, a nicotine nasal spray, and Chantix and Zyban, both of which are non-nicotine medications.

The FDA currently does not report success rates for the above-mentioned NRTs. Independent research suggests that smokers who use the patch have a 9.2 percent success rate at six months; research for nicotine gum puts the rate at 8.4 percent. And according to information found on WebMD, quit rates for all over-the-counter NRTs ranges from 19 to 26 percent, while prescription-based medications like Chantix and Zyban are higher at 33 percent and 24 percent.

Those same studies that show how NRTs are effective also suggest that vape products may have a place on the FDA’s list, even though the products are currently under severe regulations by the agency.

Researchers in the UK and in Europe have found that vape products are 95 percent less harmful than traditional cigarettes; those studies also show that 6.1 million people and counting in Europe have quit smoking with the use of vape products. Another nine million people have used vape products to cut back on their smoking habit, although they continue to smoke on a semi-regular basis.

In spite of all the research that the FDA has that vaping would be an effective smoking cessation method, it continues to warn against the products based on what the agency calls “potential health risks.”

This would be a fair statement if the FDA had been funding independent research to learn more about the long-term effects that vaping could have on people. Instead, the agency has decided to regulate vape products as tobacco products, which may very well regulate the vape industry in the United States out of existence, or at the very least, bankruptcy.

This has come into clear focus after the FDA passed into law a “deeming” rule that subjects all vape products to PMTAs, or pre-market tobacco applications, a rule that went into effect in August of last year. Every vape product at every nicotine level and every flavor must go through this expensive process, and it must be completed by August 8, 2018, or the products will become illegal to sell.

The rule is also set to cost companies hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in legal and application fees. It’s a move that could put many vape companies, which are small businesses, out of service, leaving the vape industry in a comatose state.

In Stier’s view, it’s a move that cements vaping’s fate. He states: “So people who have tried to quit and failed, and tried to quit and failed, don’t have other choices that the public health establishment supports.”

And the establishment in the United States is being supported by medical research that is funded by Big Pharma.

One of the biggest examples of the medical research bias that is making itself apparent is Dr. Jon Ebbert, who works as a Mayo Clinic addiction expert and researcher. In fact, the Mayo Clinic and its Nicotine Dependence Center has piggybacked on the FDA’s statement that vaping is not a viable smoking cessation method and should be avoided due to the lack of data and “mixed results” of the studies that have done so far.

It is important to note here that dozens of studies have been done on vaping, and the majority support the idea that vaping is safer than smoking; in fact, many countries have already accepted vaping and encourage its citizens to use it as a smoking cessation method.

However, Ebbert has continuously been an outspoken critic against vaping and has repeatedly warned against the devices in Mayo Clinic approved podcasts and videos. He has stated on more than one occasion that: “I think we need to be very clear as clinicians that these electronic cigarettes have an unknown safety profile.”

Ebbert’s statements on vaping, however, ought to be taken with a grain of salt. Every time he speaks on the subject, there is a disclaimer that follows his statements that reads:

“Joe [sic] O. Ebbert, MD, MSc, reports receiving grants from JHP Pharmaceuticals, Orexigen, and Pfizer outside the submitted work; he also reports receiving personal fees from GlaxoSmithKline.”

This is an important disclaimer for one reason: Pfizer makes Nicotrol NS and Chantix, while GlaxoSmithKline is the maker of Zyban. Combined, the companies have given Ebbert over $650,000 for both grants and consulting fees.

There is a lot to be said of the appearance of bias, particularly when an expert research obtains grants or fees from companies in their field. While the money doesn’t automatically mean a researcher will publish evidence to support their patrons, an unconscious bias may still exist.

Dr. Michael Siegel, who is a Boston University public health professor and also a tobacco control expert, said it best when he stated that:

“Conflict of interest refers to a subconscious bias that the researcher isn’t aware of. A conflict of interest creates the appearance of bias, whether it’s present or not.”

Siegel goes on to say the unconscious bias is not just a phenomenon localized to the FDA and the Mayo Clinic; the CDC, as well as the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, is also publishing biased findings as well.

“It’s a phenomenon in the entire e-cigarette industry,” Siegel said of the misinformation campaign. “Nowhere do [researchers] actually come out and say e-cigarettes are a lot safer than cigarettes and that there’s a huge relative risk difference between the two. They’re really using scare tactics to demonize e-cigarettes.”

The misinformation campaign against the vape market continues, but understanding who the researchers behind the studies are and who funds them can be an important tool to hold them accountable for their claims. And with more independent medical scientists and researchers holding studies of their own, it’s possible to see a change in public information in the very near future.

Dustin has been vaping for almost a decade. He found e-cigarettes in 2008 and quickly became drawn to them as an early adopter. He's been writing reviews ever since and has established himself as a well-versed authority on the subject.

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