This week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched a new initiative designed to tackle “the growing spread of rumors, misinformation and disinformation about science, medicine, and the FDA.” Describing this move as “rumor control,” it is primarily aimed at myths and false information about COVID-19 vaccines, but in the tobacco and nicotine policy area, the FDA itself has been guilty of providing very damaging misinformation of its own.
Announcing the initiative, FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf declared that the “distortions and half-truths of misinformation and disinformation pose enormous dangers to the effectiveness of science and to public health itself, through the negative impact it has on individual behavior.” And he promised to make “combating misinformation one of [his] priorities.”
If he is to be true to his vow, he could begin by reviewing the misinformation about vaping products currently being displayed on the FDA website. On a page detailing the results of the latest annual National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS), one graphic decries “about 1 in 4 [U.S. youth] use e-cigs daily.” This is simply untrue. In reality, the NYTS survey found that only 3.1 percent of youths vaped on more than 20 days per month, a vast difference from the claimed 25 percent.
The FDA website also carries youth vaping prevention posters to be used by various groups including doctors, schools, and state and local public health agencies. These claim, amongst other dangers, that “[n]icotine can rewire a teen’s brain to crave more nicotine and can create addiction,” despite there being no scientific basis for this claim. In fact, an academic analysis of the NYTS surveys has noted that “frequent use and signs of e-cigarette dependence remained rare in students who had only ever used e-cigarettes and never any other tobacco product.”
The FDA also regularly warns that “using nicotine as a teen may have enduring impacts on attention, learning, and memory,” but fails to mention that the so-called science they cite for this claim was only performed on rats, which are widely regarded not to be an accurate proxy for assessing impact on humans. The FDA scientists are fully aware that studies on rodents are weak and inconclusive, but are happy to sow confusion and doubt about alternatives to combustible tobacco.
By far the most egregious misinformation peddled by the FDA was its handling of the lung injury outbreak in 2019. From the outset, both the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were all too keen to make propaganda capital out of an issue that resulted in dozens of deaths. The event was categorized as E-cigarette or Vaping Acute Lung Injury (EVALI), as both agencies instantly pointed the finger at all vaping despite there being no outbreak of lung injuries related to nicotine vaping anywhere else in the world.
It was clear in August 2019 that the problem was specific to illicit black market THC pods, but both FDA and CDC persisted with labelling EVALI as a nicotine vaping problem. This was the very definition of misinformation that Dr. Califf has commented on this week.
The panic this misinformation created not only scared many smokers away from vaping, thereby perpetuating harm, but also resulted in a failure to give a clear warning about the deadly nature of illicit THC vapes on sale in 2019. Califf describes misinformation as potentially having a “negative impact … on individual behavior,” and in the case of EVALI it is quite possible that misinformation presented by the FDA and CDC caused many to continue use of a lethal illicit product.
The FDA’s poor behavior and disingenuous risk communication has contributed to the shameful situation where only a pitiful 2.6 percent of the American public correctly believe that vaping is “much less harmful” than smoking cigarettes, according to the US National Cancer Institute HINTS survey. This distortion is effectively ensuring that many people will continue to smoke because of being poorly informed of the relative risks.
For the FDA to trumpet a campaign against misinformation when it has, and still does, spread “rumors, misinformation and disinformation about science” of its own about vaping products is top drawer hypocrisy.
If the FDA Commissioner wants to wage a war on misinformation and misrepresentation of science, he should start by tackling the distortions and half-truths peddled by his own organization.
By Martin Cullip | The Taxpayers Protection Alliance
Martin Cullip is International Fellow at The Taxpayers Protection Alliance’s Consumer Center and is based in South London, UK.