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Public Misunderstanding of Health Risks is "a Good Thing" According to Some in the Tobacco Control Movement

Somewhere along the line, I must have gone astray. During my master's in public health program, I was taught that one major goal of public health is to educate the public about the risks of various exposures. I was also taught that accurately communicating these risks, as well as helping the public to accurately understand the relative risks between different hazardous behaviors or products was critical.

Well, based on an editorial published this morning in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network Open, I was misguided. For in this editorial, it states that the increasing public misunderstanding of the relative risks of smoking compared to vaping is "a good thing."

The editorial responds to new research also published this morning in the same journal which documents that the majority of adults in the U.S. completely misunderstand the dangers that smoking poses compared to those posed by vaping and furthermore, that the proportion of people with this misunderstanding has been growing substantially over time. (See: Huang J, Feng B, Weaver SR, Pechacek TF, Slovic P, Eriksen MP. Changing perceptions of harm of e-cigarette vs cigarette use among adults in 2 US national surveys from 2012 to 2017. JAMA Network Open. 2019;2(3):e191047).

According to the study, in 2012, only 39.4% of adults perceived e-cigarettes as less harmful than real cigarettes. This is pitiful, given the overwhelming scientific evidence that vaping is much less hazardous than smoking. But even worse, the proportion of adults who correctly perceived vaping to be safer than smoking dropped to only 33.9% in 2017. Thus, two out of every three adults in the U.S. incorrectly believes that smoking is no more hazardous than vaping.

Perhaps even scarier, nearly 10% of adults in 2017 perceived vaping to be more harmful than smoking!

The Rest of the Story

Instead of lamenting the fact that the public's perception of the severe hazards associated with cigarette smoking has been seriously undermined over the past decade or so, the editorial almost joyfully celebrates this massive public deception that has occurred. (See: Glantz SA. The evidence of electronic cigarette risks is catching up with public perception. JAMA Network Open. 2019;2(3):e191032).

It is quite a feat of magical writing to take the dismal news that the public is increasingly downplaying the severe risks of smoking and completely misunderstands the relative risks of smoking compared to vaping and to turn that into a tremendous public health victory.

The truth is, however, that this public misunderstanding is having devastating public health consequences. Convinced that vaping is no safer than smoking, many former smokers who quit using e-cigarettes are returning to smoking. After all, what's the point of staying smoke-free using e-cigarettes if vaping is just as bad as smoking? You might as well go back to your Marlboros.

In addition, this misinformation is deterring many smokers who would otherwise have tried to quit using e-cigarettes to just continue smoking. After all, why quit smoking and switch to e-cigarettes if vaping is every bit as harmful. You might as well just stick with your Marlboros.

Huang et al., the authors of the featured article, correctly point out that: "The need for accurate communication of the risk of e-cigarettes to the public is urgent and should clearly differentiate the absolute from the relative harm of e-cigarettes." But somehow, Professor Glantz does not believe that accurate communication is the way to go. Apparently, inaccurate communication is better.

This would almost be funny, were it not for the fact that many adults are going to die because of it. As Huang et al. point out: "Perception of e-cigarette harm [compared to smoking] may deter current smokers from initiating or continuing use of e-cigarettes. This perception may also deter a complete switch from cigarettes to e-cigarettes among smokers. In light of this possibility, the observed upward trend of perceiving e-cigarettes to be more as harmful as or more harmful than cigarette smoking among US adults warrants heightened attention."

In public health, the means do not justify the ends. We do not lie to people in order to persuade them to change their behavior. Telling the truth is a core ethical value of public health practice. But maybe not so much in tobacco control. For us, it is apparently acceptable to spread hysteria using false comparisons and lies simply because we can't handle the idea that there are millions of vapers who have saved their lives using a device that delivers nicotine.
Original author: Michael Siegel
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