by Carl V Phillips
Today, the New York Times Editorial Board, in an apparent backlash against their excellent columnist (one of the two), Joe Nocera, exercising his autonomy to write something honest about e-cigarettes, published both an anti-ecig screed by two leading liars and a general anti-THR screed of their own (mostly about e-cigarettes, though the headline was about smokeless tobacco). Needless to say, both are thick with lies. Honestly, they are pretty boring, but for the record, I thought I should call out a few points.
The former was written by David Kessler and Matthew Myers, who I will refer to collectively as “Messler”, because it amuses me. Messler began by referencing – misleadingly, of course – the new CDC statistics about e-cigarettes and teenagers. Of course, they referred to the statistics as “use” even though they only thing that was measured was trialing. Messler then go on to invoke the tired trope about how e-cigarette merchants are marketing “using the same playbook cigarette companies have”. Yes it is truly horrifying that these merchants did not figure out some way to advertise without including any of (these were their examples) celebrities, TV and magazine ads, portrayals of the product as glamorous, and sponsorships of events. Basically if someone the ANTZ do not like were merely communicating using English sentences – just like the cigarette companies do!!! – they would assert that they were acting exactly the same.
The main focus of the commentary is about how e-cigarettes have “escaped federal regulation”. Cute language huh. It puts the blame for the government utterly failing to come up with any reasonable and rational proposed regulation on the product. They do go on to put the blame on actors rather than inanimate objects — that it is “wending its way through the bureaucracy” and such. But they conveniently omit that the wend-swept bureaucracy in question is the FDA Center for Tobacco Products, an operation that was built to be dysfunctional. Who contributed to building it? No one more so than these two authors. It was Kessler’s idea, though he could not pull it off during his time at the FDA, and it was Myers whose Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids worked out the secret deal with Altria to create the enabling legislation.
They then descend into the usual breathless statements about the increasing popularity of e-cigarettes. But, funny thing, they do not actually say that e-cigarettes cause any harm. They want the reader to just believe they are baaad. Because…um…well, they look like smoking! And nicotine addiction (never mind there is not apparently such a thing)! And…sputter sputter… Big Tobacco!
Yeah, whatever. The usual boring lies.
It gets better when they, in the context of complaining about CTP’s glacial pace, assert:
During that time, e-cigarette proponents lobbied heavily – and successfully – against restrictions on marketing or use of flavors.
So, yea us!
Actually that is really only half-true. There have been almost no proposed restrictions on marketing – which is not exactly the proponents’ fault, huh, Messler? — and not much pushback against those that were proposed. The real fight has never been about marketing. Marketing only seems to matter to dinosaurs like Messler who think it is still 1975 and we are talking about marketing that promotes smoking rather than promoting smoking cessation. Indeed, rambling on about marketing is pretty much a shibboleth for someone trying to refight the battles of their long-lost youth.
The New York Times Editorial Board’s (hereafter, Newtboar) used their own byline to write something that was apparently intended to make the Messler column they comissioned look substantive and honest by comparison. It leads with:
The makers of smokeless tobacco products like to claim that their products are safer than cigarettes because users don’t inhale the tars and toxic chemical from burning tobacco.
As you might guess from the phrasing, they go on to imply that such a claim would be false. It is, of course, true by a factor of 100 or so. It would be even more true if the claim were that we know the products are safer because the epidemiology shows beyond any hint of a doubt that they are safer. What is not true, however, is that the manufacturers like to claim it. They would like to claim it, but they are prohibited by law. So Newtboar is out-and-out lying with this statement.
Newtboar then takes a non sequitur leap to e-cigarettes, making some of the exact same comments that Messler made (funny that), only they phrased them worse and made stupid little errors because, you know, they are professional journalists. My favorite was:
Nicotine is highly addictive, no matter how it is taken in.
Dear journalism majors: If you cannot even define an adjective, let alone figure out how to quantify it, you might want to avoid attaching the adverb “highly” to it. Also “is taken in” is not exactly elegant prose. Perhaps most important, you might want to check with your paymasters in pharma before saying such a thing, because they strongly disagree.
I LOLed at Newboar’s version of the “just like cigarette marketing” trope:
Major tobacco companies are selling e-cigarettes with the same tactics used to promote conventional cigarettes in the past, such as targeting teenagers with special promotions and flavoring their products.
Seriously? No responsible companies – especially the majors – let their products be sold to teenagers at all, and that is in most states in any case (assuming we are referring to minor teenagers, which is obviously the intention of this passage). Thus they obviously do not give them special promotions. And the majors have a really lousy flavor selection. But yes they do flavor their products — basically all e-cigarettes are flavored with something — and since no product with any flavor whatsoever is ever sold to adults, this must be about the teenagers. They go on to cite their own new article in which their reporter was duped into reporting the “experiences” of a “teenager” who was actually a hoax.
Naturally, Newtboar call for FDA to “ban flavors and packaging designed to appeal to youngsters”. (Ok, that one may be an even better shibboleth: “Get off my lawn, you youngsters!”) I wonder what they would say if asked the obvious follow-up question – which would have to come from a blogger, since the NYT staff do not seem to understand the concept of challenging assertions with follow-ups – what exactly defines something as being designed to appeal to teenagers? The answer, no doubt, would translate into “anything that is designed to appeal to anyone.”
They then switch back to talking about smokeless tobacco, in the context of Swedish Match’s MRTP application. They cherrypick a few alarmist statements with “some studies have linked snus with….” Um, yeah. Do you think they understand that if you do a bunch of quantitative studies of something, some will show an association and some will not, which is why you pay attention to the entire body of evidence, not individual studies? (Hint: read the NYT’s health reporting and you will have your answer.) They, of course, conclude – based on their great expertise as political reporters – that FDA should not approve the MRTP application. I look forward to their opinion on how to interpret the latest data coming from CERN.
The single bit that they got partially right was back when they were talking about the latest CDC numbers:
Some experts say the positive news is that the percentage of high school students who smoke traditional cigarettes dropped sharply last year, to 9.2 percent, and they attribute this trend to e-cigarette use. But the decrease in student smoking began before the rapid rise in e-cigarette use and was caused mostly by factors like higher taxes and public service campaigns that highlighted the ghastly effects of smoking, according to Dr. Thomas Frieden, the C.D.C. director.
The are right to question the claim that e-cigarette use has caused the decrease. Of course, they do not question the assertion of serial liar Frieden that e-cigarettes are not causing any of the decrease. The fact is that both of these claims are equally unsupported by the data — it is just not possible to tease out the effect. Our side does not need to implicitly endorse the junk science games of the ANTZ with unsupportable claims like that. We have legitimate claims available. We do not have to pretend this is evidence that e-cigarettes are reducing teen smoking when we can say that most teenage e-cigarette use is concentrated among smokers; the latter is correct and delivers the same message. Similarly, we do not have to pretend that these countervailing trends are evidence there is no gateway effect (which does not follow at all) when we can simply point out there is no evidence of such an effect and simply no reason to ever expect it.
The real criticism of the CDC reporting, which Newtboar conveniently overlook, is the completely downplaying of the record low smoking numbers. For the first time ever, one of the Health People 20xx tobacco use goals has actually been met, with teen smoking rates now below the target for the Healthy People 2020 target (h/t JG). You would never know that if you just listened to the government (and editorial page) media blitz. Why? Because success does not benefit the business model of either the popular press or anti-tobacco operations. The former, of course, are best at selling fear and alarm; people looking for something better have long since abandoned the corporate media. The latter depend on smoking for their salaries; if smoking decreases to the point that it is clearly not The Absolute Worst Thing In The World!!!!, they are out of business. So don’t expect any respite in their war on effective smoking cessation methods.