by Carl V Phillips
In a story that is practically a carbon copy of the lies from the Florida Department of Health that I discussed a few days ago, the CDC is lying to the public about statistics on school-aged e-cigarette use. But this time, the lies are officially coming from our nation’s government, not some second-rate local department. (Note, by calling them “second-rate” I am giving Florida the benefit of the doubt: in my experience, state health departments start at second-rate and go down from there.)
The CDC results were published in the agency’s newsletter/blog, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report and the lies were blasted out to the public via this press release. Any American who is still shocked to find that their government is lying to them is an idiot (I doubt I will insult even a single one of my readers by saying that), and yet many reporters tend to blindly transcribe what CDC says rather than, say, bothering to read beyond the headline to see that it is clear based on only what CDC themselves reported in their press release that the claims are lies.
The headline of the press release manages to fit in one lie and two misleading claims, “E-cigarette use more than doubles among U.S. middle and high school students from 2011-2012″. The biggest lie is that they report nothing about use. All the reported statistics are about about trying the products, perhaps only once, which is obviously not the same thing (and CDC knows this). Some statistics reported are for “ever having tried” and the others are “tried at least once in the last 30 days”. They misidentify anyone who has tried in the last month as a current user, which is a rather blatant lie. (Of course, some of those who tried recently may well actually be users, but there is nothing in the report that lets us conclude that even one single student is actually an e-cigarette user.)
The second sneaky lie was listing “middle school” ahead of “high school” even though the results for the former are trivial. But it is scarier to imply that this is mostly about 12-year-olds and not 18-year-old high school students, isn’t it?
The third lie in the headline requires a bit of numeracy and data that is right there in the press release. (This opens the question of whether our nation’s government’s top health officials are themselves innumerate.) The number that more than doubled is for “ever tried”. When your study population is 3/4 the same people from one observation to the next (as it the case with students who are in high school in 2012 compared to those in 2011), and the phenomenon you are studying is new enough that most of the trying is recent (as with e-cigarettes or whatever the latest offering McDonalds or Pepsico has added to their menu), then of course you are going to see a sharp increase in the number who have ever tried it. It is almost impossible to see a decrease, and moreover, if the exact same number tried for the first time each year, that would come close to doubling the number who had ever tried.
You are with me there, right? An 11th grader, in 2011, who tried an e-cigarette in 10th grade is still part of the “ever tried” group when he is in 12th grade in 2012. If one of his classmates tried one for the first time in 11th grade, he joins his friend in the “ever tried” group in 2012. Though the rate of trying was the same for this two-person population each year, the “ever tried” statistic DOUBLED!!!! Scream it from the rooftops!
Did I mention that CDC are lying to people?
CDC apparently did not actually measure e-cigarette use. They could have, of course. Presumably they knew that the results would contradict the alarmist prohibitionist message they wanted to deliver, and so avoided the truth intentionally. Actual use is clearly trivial. If you actually wade though their breathless rhetoric to find information, you learn that 2.8% of high school students reporting trying an e-cigarette in the last month. How many are actually using them? If it is even as high as 1/10th of that, we are talking 0.3%. But, hey, if you report something like that people will not be worried. And worrying people is the goal. So stick with “doubled!!!!!”.
Identifying the other important lies requires a bit of knowledge rather just the level of math that we can hope every subject of the studies learned many years ago. (Am I being too optimistic about the quality of our schools? Perhaps. But that is off-topic.) It turns out that almost all the e-cigarette triers had also tried cigarettes and indeed that almost 80% of them were “current smokers” (which, given CDC’s misuse of terms may be an overstatement of how much they actually smoke, though we do know that — unlike with e-cigarette trying (“hey, what is that? can I try a puff?”) — a large portion of those who puff a cigarette in a month are genuinely current smokers). So this means that it is quite conceivable that most of those kids who tried an e-cigarette were pursuing THR! That is, they consider themselves to be hooked on smoking and are seeking a low-risk alternative. But we can’t have that, can we?
A comparatively minor point in the context of their more blatant lies, but still quite poisonous, is CDC converting their statistics (via the estimated size of the cohort they are studying) to “1.78 million” total students having tried e-cigarettes. This level of precision implies that they have their result estimated so precisely that they know it to 1 part in 1000. But their trying statistics, even if about as right as they could possibly be have precision in the range of maybe +/-20% at best. (That is the best case scenario — when someone is lying about their statistics, always be concerned that they are lying about the data quality too.) If they had said “almost 2 million” that would be reasonable, but even rounding to 1.8 million would imply more precision than they actually have, let alone 1.78.
Another comparatively minor but not trivial point is that quite a few high school students are of legal age to use tobacco products, and so it would be useful to break out the statistics for under-18 (which, of course, would be lower than those that include the 18- and even 19-year-olds).
It is also worth noting something that we know but apparently CDC does not: Not all e-cigarettes even have nicotine in them. How many of the kids tried e-cigarettes with nicotine? No one knows.
Of course, the biggest lie is the “gateway” lie. You know that when prohibitionists start making claims about a gateway that they have given up on pretending that a behavior is a problem in itself. So they have to make up some reason for prohibiting it, so they claim that it leads to something that is a problem. There is never any evidence to support those claims, about anything, as far as I have ever observed. That is certainly the case here. And yet the CDC makes claims that their data show that we should be worried about gateway effects even though there is no actual hint of that.
You can tell someone is starting with a conclusion and fishing for claims to support it when they contradict themselves over it within a few thousand words. They claim both that the statistics showing almost all e-cigarette triers are smokers (or have tried cigarettes) suggests that there is a worry of a gateway and also that the statistics showing that a few (1/5th) of the (very few) younger kids who tried e-cigarettes had not tried cigarettes means that there might be a gateway. So, guys, what would the evidence need to show to refute the claim there is a gateway? The answer, of course, is that whatever the evidence shows, it supports the claim — this is religion, not science.