In December researchers from San Diego issued a press release claiming that electronic cigarettes are as dangerous as smoking. Two days ago, following a storm of criticism from vaping advocates and tobacco control experts, they backed away from that claim in a public correction. The media, who widely reported the original press release, have totally ignored the correction. Perhaps they’re ashamed to admit how easily they were fooled – a quick look at the actual study would have shown how skewed the publicity was. Or perhaps they have a new hobby horse to ride this week.
Today British medical journal The Lancet published a paper claiming that e-cigarettes, widely hailed as a radical new way to quit smoking, actually make it harder to stop.
The paper was written by a team from San Francisco, and the most prominent author is Professor Stanton A. Glantz. Glantz is one of the best known figures in tobacco control and his presence gives the paper a lot of weight. Arguably what gives it even more weight is the fact it’s a meta-analysis. This type of study collects together all the existing research on a topic and combines the data, so the results should be extremely reliable. That, combined with who wrote it, makes a compelling case for the dangers of electronic cigarettes.
At least, it does if you don’t look too closely. Glantz is famous among public #Health campaigners – but because of decades of tireless activism, not actual expertise. Incredibly, he doesn’t even have a medical degree. His qualifications are all in aeronautical engineering.
He also has a reputation for creativity. A common trick of his is to take a “snapshot” study and claim it shows cause and effect.
Any scientist will tell you this is impossible; to do it you need a “longitudinal” study, which follows the same subjects over time. Glantz has been criticized for this several times, but he keeps doing it. That would be unforgivable in a scientist, whose aim is to discover facts. But remember, Glantz is an activist – his aim is to achieve a political goal.
Since the appearance of e-cigarettes Glantz has switched his attention from tobacco to the new devices, and this focus worries many smoking cessation experts. Dr Mike Siegel, a public health specialist at Boston University, has frequently accused his former mentor of distorting the facts. Within hours of this new paper being released Siegel’s criticisms have been joined by many others. This time it’s not just creative use of statistics that’s alleged – some scientists say Glantz deliberately misrepresented their work.
A scathing article by the #Science Media Centre lines up an array of experts, and without exception they’re critical of the Glantz paper.
Prof. Robert West says the accelerated fall in smoking destroys the paper’s conclusion, while Prof. Peter Hajek names a list of failures that he says add up to a “grossly misleading” picture. Prof. Ann McNeill points out that Glantz ignored a large part of the literature in his “meta-analysis”. The new paper looks at data from 38 studies. McNeill recently carried out her own e-cig meta-analysis of 185 studies – which reached exactly the opposite conclusion. If Glantz really did cherry-pick studies to get the results he wanted, as the numbers imply, that indicates a deliberate attempt to deceive.
But evidence of deception might already be in the open. Glantz cited a paper by Dr. Sarah Adkison of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute as being a longitudinal study that supported his conclusion. When Adkison became aware of this she and her team contacted Glantz to tell him that their study was not longitudinal and did not back up his claims. He ignored them.
The immediate furious reaction from real experts with real qualifications suggests the Glantz paper is a bad, and possibly fraudulent, study. But what will the world’s so-called “science” correspondents do? Will they investigate its claims, or just uncritically repeat its click-bait conclusions? Sadly, I think we can guess. #News