Today, film director Aaron Biebert presented a speech to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. In it he issued an eloquent plea for President Obama to ensure that upcoming FDA regulations on electronic cigarettes don’t wipe out the industry and leave what survives in the hands of the tobacco companies.

For anyone following the news this may seem like a strange request. After all, a new study from Harvard University links e-cigarette vapor to a serious lung disease, bronchiolitis obliterans. This disease has been found in workers exposed to high levels of the food flavoring diacetyl - and Harvard found diacetyl in most of the 51 e-cigarette cartridges and liquids they tested.

The media has given this study a lot of attention, because electronic cigarettes are a controversial issue right now. The UK’s main health organization, Public Health England, recently issued a detailed report that concluded they’re around 95% safer than smoking tobacco and can help smokers quit. Many public health activists and academics disagree, at least partly because of stories like this, but smoking is falling in the USA.

What’s interesting is how shallow reporting on the story has been. Every major news source that’s covered it, from Harvard’s own in-house paper to Vox.com and the UK’s Daily Telegraph, have mentioned diacetyl was found in most of the liquids; none of them have explained how much there was, whether it’s a dangerous amount, or how it compares to cigarette smoke. The last one is very relevant. British research suggests that 99% of people who use e-cigs regularly are current or former smokers. They’re using them to replace actual tobacco cigarettes. So, for these people, diacetyl is only a problem if there’s more of it in the e-cig vapor than there is in tobacco smoke.

And there isn’t. Harvard’s study shows that on average there’s 750 times more diacetyl in smoke than in vapor. The liquid with the highest amount still only had 5% of what’s in a single cigarette. Of the 39 that tested positive for the chemical thirteen had less of it than a sample of fresh air tested with the same equipment! And considering that bronchiolitis obliterans isn’t on the long list of diseases caused by smoking, it looks like the level of diacetyl found in e-cigarette vapor just isn’t enough to worry about. Science journalists should have spotted that. None did. 

This story exposes a big problem with the way the media is increasingly working. Journalists are supposed to research the stories they write, and put the information they collect together to reveal the truth. Too often that’s not happening - many journos just repeat what's in the press release. A closer look at the Harvard study would have raised other questions, too. For example the researchers didn’t list concentrations of diacetyl, just the total weight they collected – but their test samples weren’t all the same size. Instead of measuring out identical quantities of each liquid they just ran the e-cigs until no more vapor came out. That’s bad science, and someone should have noticed.

So far this year one study on electronic cigarettes turned out to be paid for by a class action law firm. Another was indirectly funded by the world’s largest manufacturer of nicotine patches and gum. No mainstream science journalist picked up on this.

Aaron Biebert doesn’t use electronic cigarettes himself – and he doesn’t smoke either – but right now he’s making a film that alleges serious conflicts of interest among the loudest opponents of electronic cigarettes. Tobacco and quit smoking products are very big business – and so are health pressure groups that campaign against smoking. All these people have an interest in seeing the new products fail, either by having them banned or convincing the public that they’re even more dangerous than smoking. There’s evidence that they’re willing to pay for research that supports their side of the story. But you won’t hear about that from the average science journalist.