I was thinking about the persistence of that FDA assay despite the rounds of criticism from all the right quarters. Just about every article or health web site arguing against vaping will cite this one study and often no others. This became quite evident to me when I was writing about a possible ban on e-cigarettes in the Gulf states (curiously enough two years ago to the day).
Not only did I think it odd that it was that one study that kept getting referenced (as though none other existed) but that an American study would be used half way across the world as authoritative in a culture that not only has its own resources but that often as not decries American influence. And reversing the situation, can you imagine the American Lung Association using an e-cigarette study out of Qatar as the sole citation on a post?
However, as odd as this situation is, it is tobacco harm reduction history repeating itself.
In 1981 the New England Journal of Medicine published Deborah Winn et al’s Snuff dipping and oral cancer among women in the southern United States. I won’t retread old ground about the shortcomings of this article – see Brad Rodu’s excellent summary – however let’s just say that the paper makes better reading as anthropology than health risks. The authors managed to run down a group of white women who had used an antiquated version of powdered dry snuff for most of the hours of the day for over fifty years. In comparison to non-users, this group was determined to have about 50 times the risk of developing oral cancer. The figure mentioned in this deeply flawed study ended up being used to represent the typical risk to the average user using products that had little in common with the product in that study.
It used to be that every site warning off smokers who were thinking of switching to smokeless tobacco would cite this figure. Looking again for the first time in a couple of years I see that little has changed (see Web MD or Illinois Department of Public Health). Their overall message much like the one that attends bad vaping articles is that smokeless tobacco is as or possibly even more harmful than smoking.
Just as with the FDA case, there were plenty of other studies out there. In fact the situation was much more pronounced. As well as other American studies there existed a body of strong research from Sweden where more people were using snus than smoking and where the shift resulted in a decline in smoking related disease rates. You think that would have clinched the deal but rather than this one bizarre outlier being consigned to ignominy there seemed to be no effect at all on the messages that public health resources were giving out.
(In addition to other studies, it is this same Swedish data that allows us to be pretty sure that e-cigarettes are so very much safer than smoking).
Paralleling the situation with e-cigarettes you would typically also read that the authors felt there were no studies demonstrating that these alternatives were any safer than smoking.
So what you have are the bad apples, the early studies that don’t seem to be replicated or supported by any other studies, which go against everything that follows, and yet remain the official sources. Even more upsetting (and detrimental to public health), these official messages ended up becoming common knowledge – basic truths everyone “knows”.
The other thing to note is that both the Winn and FDA reports were obviously flawed in themselves. You did not require other information to know that these lacked credibility. And yet these bad apples stuck.
Part 2 will explore possible reasons why these zombie studies would not die.
More on this tomorrow….