Journalistic Manipulation ~ E Cigarettes.

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A few days ago this headline in the Guardian Newspaper caught my eye.

“E-cigarette poisoning figures soar as vaping habit spreads across UK” here’s the link
http://bit.ly/1ntt5hI

It is not unreasonable to assume that, had I not been bothered to actually read this piece, I might have believed from this ‘startling’ headline, that people who ‘smoke’ E Cigarettes are, as we speak, filling the waiting rooms of their GPs to discuss their terminal illnesses and then hurry home to update their wills!

Well as I say, I did read the article and it lead me to ask myself this.
Why would a journalist be writing such a spurious piece of empty nonsense and who would benefit from the misleading propaganda that it was trying to instill in its “just swallow the headline…don’t read the article” misinformation of the reader?

Suffice to say, the ‘poisoning’ was not, as one may have been led to believe, from the ‘smoking’ of the vapour, but the fact that ‘little Johnny’ could find a bottle of the liquid, and gorge himself silly!
It then occurred to me that maybe the bottle of bleach under the sink was a bit ‘old hat’ and Johnny was ringing the changes in his quest for variety!

I was delighted when I found this sensible response (also from the Guardian) which I include here:

Aside from the occasional cigar (once every five years or so), I’m one of those smug “never smoked” gits. You then might think that I’m all for plain packaging, not publishing tobacco industry-funded research, and completely against the “normalization” of smoking via the evidently evil medium of e-cigarettes.

The truth is, as I’ve said before in this column, as long as I’m not forced to breathe your smoke, I don’t actually care. If you want to smoke, or (to choose a couple of random things that I don’t want to try either, thankyouverymuch) jump out of a perfectly serviceable aeroplane with a piece of silk tied to your back or throw yourself off a bridge with a length of rope around your ankles, then go ahead, be my guest. I like to think we live in a free society where if you’re a grown-up and not harming anyone else then you’re big enough to make your own decisions.

Sadly, it seems that I’m deluded.

Our society is not free, and nowhere is this more evident than in the continuing demonization of people who like to smoke cigarettes. Now, yes, I’m all for keeping your smoke away from my nose, but when it comes to publicly shaming smokers each time they go to buy a packet of Marlboro Lights (That’s “Marlboro Gold Pack” to you) then my libertarian trigger finger gets a little bit itchy. And as for banning of vaping in public places in the name of shaming I’m going positively postal.

(Aside: as e-cigarettes have become more common, so have cases of poisoning from accidental ingestion of the liquid, which you just know is going to be used as an argument for the complete banning of e-cigarettes. Big surprise. People are stupid and accidentally swallow bleach. We should ban bleach, yeah.)

And then we have scientific and medical journals who, on principle, refuse to publish any research that is even part-funded by the tobacco industry. The latest such to come to my attention (tip of the fag, I mean hat, to Christopher Snowden on Twitter) is the European Journal of Public Health. Who, interestingly, say,

In reaching this decision, we are fully aware of the arguments that, as long as there is full disclosure of conflicts of interest, readers can decide for themselves about how to interpret the findings in published papers. Moreover, the peer review process should remove those papers that are seriously flawed or fraudulent.

The authors of this editorial statement (which sadly is not freely available) then add, “Yet we know from experience that this view is naïve.”

As Christopher Snowden put it, this is an implicit admission that their peer review process is not up to snuff. It’s also quite an insult to the intelligence of the readers of the journal.

We know the tobacco industry will do all it can to (a) sell more cigarettes and (b) convince us that smoking isn’t as harmful as we think. Equally, the pharmaceutical industry wants to sell more drugs, some of which have undoubtedly caused more harm than good, and has a pretty piss-poor track record when it comes to publishing unbiased research. Some would argue that pharma-funded research also shouldn’t be published.

So what do we publish? What research funding is clean? Fully two-thirds of research and development in this country is funded by industry or other commercial concerns. What about the remaining third? Are the academics shining beacons of ethical purity? Do they not have financial interests, tenure-track positions to consolidate, grants and students to secure?

Of course they do. No researcher is entirely disinterested and free of inducements to bad behaviour – even if their conflict of interest is a pet hypothesis, it’s still a source of bias that should be scrutinised as thoroughly as any piece of tobacco industry-funded research. Hell, the mere act of publishing is the biggest conflict of interest of all.

The solution to conflicts of interest and outright lies is not to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, but to bring it out into the open where everybody can have a look and a poke and, where appropriate, a damned good heckle. Publishing a piece of research is always only the beginning of the conversation: it means nothing until it gets to be torn apart by your peers – and in the fullness of time, replicated by independent parties.

Rather than not publishing anything funded by industry interests (and after all, there are enough fly-by-night operations that will publish any old shit, peer reviewed or not), reputable journals should gladly accept research funded by industry – any industry. They should arrange for thorough peer review and insist on public disclosure of all data, and flag to readers where there is suspicion of wrongdoing.

Some published research is toxic, and can derail a field for years to come. But that happens regardless of the source of funding. At least with declared conflicts of interest you know to be suspicious – and you might even find something useful.

And above all, it’s time to stop treating us like children.

Many thanks to Richard P Grant for his measured response.
Find Richard here: https://mobile.twitter.com/rpg7twit

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