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Retracted Study Shows Widespread Bias Against Vaping Among Public Health Researchers

Tobacco-control activists have tried to blame dozens of serious health conditions on vaping. These range from brain inflammation and bone fractures to lung damage and even cancer. None of these associations has withstood scientific scrutiny. And in fact, the only human study linking cancer to vaping was recently retracted: the science journal that published it said they made a mistake by doing so.

“After publication of this article,” the retraction notice stated, “concerns have been raised regarding the article’s methodology, source data processing including statistical analysis, and reliability of conclusions…” This is one of the worst things you could say about a scientist’s work—it’s so flawed it shouldn’t have been published.

What’s most interesting about this case, however, is that the egregious errors in this study are common throughout anti-vaping research. It’s a strong confirmation that the public health establishment has a reflexive bias against tobacco harm reduction.

The study attempted to investigate cancer prevalence among adults who vape compared to that of smokers and non-smokers. It’s a worthy topic to explore because we need to determine if vaping increases someone’s cancer risk. And that leads us to the first problem with the paper. The researchers didn’t determine if cancer patients they surveyed began vaping after they were diagnosed with the disease. If they developed cancer prior to trying e-cigarettes, then vaping obviously didn’t cause their cancer.

Indeed, it’s likely that the cancer diagnosis preceded the initiation of vaping for most patients. The researchers reported that “e-cigarettes [were] used as a strategy to quit smoking in most cancer respondents.” If there is any relationship between vaping and cancer, based on this study, it’s probably that smokers who get sick switch to e-cigarettes in hopes of mitigating the harmful effects of smoking.

But there was another serious problem with the study. The researchers didn’t seem to know if they were analyzing cancer prevalence among vapers, or vaping prevalence among cancer patients. These are two different outcomes, though the researchers used them interchangeably. As a result, there’s no way to make sense of the conclusion; we simply don’t know what the study measured.

Finally, the researchers seemed to endorse two contradictory conclusions, that vaping is much less harmful than smoking and that vaping and smoking are equally likely to cause cancer.

Before research is published in a science journal, it’s supposed to be evaluated by independent experts to make sure its methods and conclusions are valid. The fact that the reviewers didn’t spot the glaring mistakes in this study suggests that there is an intense bias against vaping among many public health researchers.

One scientist who spoke to Reason Magazine about the study asked the awkward question that really needs to be answered. We’ll give him the last word:

“In an email, Brad Rodu, a University of Louisville professor of medicine who has been studying tobacco harm reduction for decades, says the ‘grossly flawed’ study of vaping and cancer raises a troubling question: ‘How could it get through peer review?’”

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