Category Archives: Lies

Regular entries for this blog – bits of the catalog of lies.

Peer review of: Michal Stoklosa (American Cancer Society), No surge in illicit cigarettes after implementation of menthol ban in Nova Scotia, Tobacco Control 2018

For an explanation of what this post is, please see this brief footnote post.

The paper reviewed here is available, open access, here.


 

It is vaguely embarrassing to write a review of this piece, which is effectively a bad local newspaper story, dressed up as if it were scientific research (though not nearly as embarrassing as being the the journal that published it). However, it is worth a few minutes because it will inevitably be used in the absurd-but-persistent propaganda efforts to claim that bans — in particular, flavor bans — do not create alternative supply chains. The open access status of the article, unlike most articles at the journal, is a bit of a giveaway about its purpose.

On the upside, it is a good quick teaching example about the standard public health research practice of ignoring competing hypotheses and explanations. There are three layers of that in this case. Continue reading

Peer review of: Dunbar et al. (Rand Corp), Disentangling Within- and Between-Person Effects of Shared Risk Factors on E-cigarette and Cigarette Use Trajectories From Late Adolescence to Young Adulthood, Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 2018

by Carl V Phillips

For an explanation of what this post is, please see this brief footnote post.

The paper reviewed here is available at Sci-Hub. The paywalled link is here.

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The typical “gateway” paper consists of observing the exposure of whether subjects (typically teenagers) have, at baseline, engaged in a particular behavior (vaping, in this case), and then observing the association with an outcome behavior (in this case, smoking). There is also an even worse collection of papers that do not even assess the order of events and simply look at whether prevalent ever-exposed status is associated with prevalent smoking. All of these suffer from the obvious fatal problem that a positive association is inevitable because inclination to ever vape is associated with inclination to ever smoke. In a counterfactual world in which vapor products did not exist, someone who vaped in the real world would be more likely to smoke than average, and this would obviously not be caused by (nonexistent) vaping. In short, since a positive association is inevitable, regardless of whether the hypothesis “vaping causes smoking” is true, observing a positive association obviously tells us nothing about about the hypothesis.

The present paper attempts to improve upon the standard worthless analysis. This is a commendable goal, and there is information value in what was done (unlike most gateway papers). However, the contributed information is very modest and does not actually support the authors’ conclusions. In particular, they claim that their results support the gateway hypothesis, and that they do so in ways that the usual longitudinal studies do not. This is simply false. Continue reading

A subtle tobacco control self-contradiction lie, re FDA pumping cigarette stock prices

by Carl V Phillips

Tobacco controllers contradict themselves all the time. That is the inevitable result of them saying whatever seems expedient at the time, without any concern for whether the evidence supports it, or even even flatly contradicts it. When someone is sociopathic enough to do this (*cough* Trump *cough*), they will not only contradict the evidence, but (unless they have incredible discipline and intelligence, which they do not) also inevitably contradict themselves. Many of tobacco control’s self-contradictions are quite simple, with patently contradictory statements appearing in the same document, or even the same paragraph. It hardly seems worth searching out the contradictions that require analysis and observations across multiple threads. But this one is kind of interesting.

A classic tobacco control trope, which you still see a fair bit, is that tobacco companies have to recruit new generations of smokers to replace their current customers. Most of those reciting this probably actually believe it, which reflects public health people’s fundamental lack of awareness about how the world works. Anyone familiar with business (and I mean at just the level of reading the newspaper) will know that markets these days hardly look beyond the next quarter’s earnings. There is not the slightest interest in future generations, and barely any interest in two years from now. C-suite executives respond mainly to these very-short-term incentives. Even stakeholders in the company – medium- to high-level employees who are planning on working there for another couple of decades — do not care about selling products to future generations.

Similarly, an economic theory or long-term shareholder perspective says companies should not care about future generations. Even the most modest discounting of future profits makes sales to upcoming generations approximately worthless in present value terms. Shareholders would rather the companies buy back shares rather than investing in “recruiting” future smokers. If you believe in an anthropomorphic view that cigarette companies “want” to stay in business – rather than making the economically rational choice of maximizing profits as far as they go and sunsetting – then they would be better off expanding horizontally into other logistics businesses (including other tobacco products) rather than worrying about whether anyone is smoking in 2060.

But let’s assume that tobacco controllers are sufficiently innumerate about business that they actually believe that companies “need” to recruit new generations. Then it cannot possibly be that they also believe this:

FDA’s attacks on the vapor product industry drove up cigarette company stock prices because they portend less competition for cigarettes over the time horizon that actually matters to the markets, a couple of years. The market cap increase reflects the expectation that the companies will be able to sell cigarettes for a higher per-unit profit and sell more cigarettes (the former is more important in terms of profits — another simple market fact that tobacco controllers do not understand — but the latter is what matters most in terms of social impacts).

Here’s the thing: If someone believes that the companies (i.e., their shareholders) actually care about selling to future generations, as they have claimed for decades, and believes that vaping will cause future generations to smoke, as they claim in this tweet and frequently, they they would have to predict that threatening to shut down the vapor product industry would depress share prices, or at least not send them through the roof.

As I said, tobacco control lies of self-contradiction are typically so blatant that there is no reason we have to dig this deeply. I certainly do not want to give tobacco controllers too much credit, by implying that they ever actually assess their hypotheses against the evidence. Still, it does not hurt to run through the scientific implications of what they say to illustrate the layers of their dishonesty.

Dual use and the arithmetic of combining relative risks

by Carl V Phillips

It was called to my attention that UCSF anti-scientist, Stanton Glantz, recently misinterpreted the implications of one of his junk science conclusions. Just running with the result from the original junk science (which I already debunked) for purposes of this post, Glantz make the amusing claim that because vaping increases heart attack risk by a RR=2 and smoking by a RR=3 (set aside that both these numbers are bullshit) then dual use must have a RR=5. WTAF?

First off, there is no apparent way to get to 5 except by pulling it out of the air. It is apparent that Glantz thinks he was adding the risks: 2+3=5. Except you cannot add risks that way. Every first-semester student knows the formula for adding risks, which is based on the excess risk. Personally I have always thought that having students memorize that as a formula, rather than making sure they inuit it, is a major pedagogic failure. But that aside, they do memorize the formula, which subtracts out the baseline portion of the RR then adds it back, as should be obvious: (RR1 – 1) + (RR2 – 1) + 1. So, the additive RR = 2-1 + 3-1 + 1 = 4. Think about it: If you “added” Glantz’s way then two risks that had RR=1.01 (a 1% increase in risk) would add to 2.02 (more than double). Or two exposures that reduced the risk by 10% (RR=0.9) would add to an increased risk, RR=1.8. Not exactly difficult to understand why this is wrong.

Additivity of risks is a reasonable assumption if the risk pathways from the exposures are very independent. The excess risk of death caused by both doing BASE jumping and smoking is basically just the excess risk of each added together. (A bit less because if one kills you, you are then not at risk of being killed by the other.) If the risks from the two exposures travel down the same causal pathways (or interact in various other ways), however, adding is clearly wrong. If vaping causes a risk (for heart attack in this example, though that does not matter), then smoking almost certainly causes the same risk via the same pathway. There is basically no aspect of the vaping exposure that is not also present with smoking (usually more so, of course). When this is the case, there are various possible interaction effects. One thing that is clear, however, is that simply adding the risks as if they did not interact is wrong.

The typical assumption built into epidemiology statistical models is that the risk multiply. This is not based on evidence this is true, but merely on the fact that it makes the math easier. The default models that most researchers tell their software to run, having little or no idea what is actually happening in the black box, build in this assumption. It is kind of roughly reasonable for some exposures, based on what we know. In the Glantz case, this would result in a claim of RR = 2 x 3 = 6, which is also not the same as 5.

So, for example, if a certain level of smoking causes lung cancer risk with RR=20, and a certain level of radon exposure causes RR=1.5, then if someone has them both, it is not unreasonable to guess that the combined effect causes RR=30. The impact on the body in terms of triggering a cancer and then preventing its growth from being stopped seems like it would work about like that. On the other hand, there are far more examples where the multiplicative assumption is obviously ridiculous. If BASE jumping once a week creates a weekly RR for death of 20, and rock climbing once a week has RR=2, doing each once a week obviously adds, as above, for RR=21, rather than multiplying to 40. (Aside: most causes of heart attack are probably subadditive, less than even this adding of the excess risks, as evidenced by dose-response curves that flatten out, as with smoking.)

But importantly, notice the “each once a week” caveat. That addresses the key error with the stupid “dual use” myths by specifying that the quantity of each activity was unaffected by doing the other. If, on the other hand, someone is an avid BASE jumper, doing it whenever he can get away, and he takes up rock climbing, the net effect is to reduce his risk. The less hazardous activity crowds out some of the more hazardous activity. This, of course, is what dual use of cigarettes and vapor products (or any other low-risk tobacco product) does. This is not complicated. Every commentator who responds to these dual use tropes — and I am not talking epidemiology methodologists, but every last average vaper with any numeracy whatsoever — points this out. Vaping also does not add to the risk of smoking because it almost always replaces some smoking rather than supplementing it. In this case, using Glantz’s fictitious numbers, it would mean the RR from dual use would fall somewhere between 2 and 3. Not added. Not multiplied. Not whatever the hell bungled arithmetic that Glantz did. Between.

As I said, everyone with a clue basically gets this, though it is worth going through the arithmetic to clarify that intuition. It is not clear whether Glantz really does not understand or is pretending he does not — as with Trump, either one is plausible for most of of his lies. Undoubtedly many of his minions and useful idiots actually believe it is right. The “dual use” trope gets traction from the fact that interaction effects from some drug combinations are worse than the risk of either drug alone. Many “overdose” deaths are not actually overdoses (the term that should be used for all drug deaths is “poisonings” to avoid that usually incorrect assumption), but rather accidental mixing of drugs that have synergistic depressant effects, often because a street drug was secretly adulterated with the other drug.

But as already noted, that is obviously not the case with different tobacco products, whose risks (if any) are via the same pathways. Even if total volume of consumption was unaffected by doing the other (as with “each once a week”) the risks would not multiply and would probably not even add. Since that is obviously not true — since in reality, consuming more of one tobacco product means consuming less of others — the suggestion is even more clearly wrong. In fact, using the term “dual use” to describe multiple tobacco products makes no more sense than saying that about someone who smokes sticks that came out of two different packs of Marlboros on the same day.

In the context of tobacco products, the phrase “dual use” is inherently a lie. It intentionally invokes the specter of different drugs (or other exposure combinations) that have synergistic negative effects. That is not remotely plausible in this case. It also intentionally implies additivity of the quantity of exposure (“doing all this, and adding in this other”) when it is actually almost all substitution, as with which pack you pull your cigarette from. To the extent that it increases total consumption of all products, this is a minor effect (a smoker who vapes not only as a partial substitute, but also occasionally when he would not have smoked even if he did not vape). This only matters to someone who does not care about risk, let alone people, and only cares about counting puffs.

There is a long list of words and phrases that when used by “public health” people should make you assume they whatever they are saying is a lie: “tobacco” (when used as if it were a meaningful exposure category), “addictive” (meaningless for drugs with little or know functionality impacts), “chemical” (a meaningful word, but invariably used because it sounds scary), and “carcinogen” (when used as a dichotomous characterization, without reference to the relevant dosage and risk). “Dual use” should be added to this list, in the same general space as “chemical”, another word that is inherently just a simple boring technical descriptor, but that is almost exclusively used to falsely imply negative effects.

My new paper: Understanding the basic economics of tobacco harm reduction

by Carl V Phillips

In case you missed it, my new IEA paper, Understanding the basic economics of tobacco harm reduction, is available here. You should go read it. The summaries do not do it justice. (Not really joking there — the summaries have picked up on one particular conclusion, but the value of the paper is laying out how to think about the whole issue.) I am posting this here primarily to create an opportunity for comments, since that is not available at the original.

Speaking of summaries, you can find this one at CityAM, which was kind enough to also run my op-ed that was based on the paper. (Needless to say, I did not choose the headline nor the link in the first paragraph — can you imagine me citing the RCP report as if they were the source of that information???)

An old letter to the editor about Glantz’s ad hominems

by Carl V Phillips

I am going through some of my old files of unpublished (or, more often, only obscurely published) material, and though I would post some of it. While I suspect you will find this a poor substitute for my usual posts, I hope there is some interest (and implicit lessons for those who think any of this is new), and posting a few of these will keep this blog going for a few weeks.

This one, from 2009, was written as a letter to the editor (rejected by the journal — surprise!) by my team at the University of Alberta School of Public Health. It was about this rant, “Tobacco Industry Efforts to Undermine Policy-Relevant Research” by Stanton Glantz and one of his deluded minions, Anne Landman, published in the American Journal of Public Health (non-paywalled version if for some unfathomable reason you actually want to read it). The authorship of our letter was Catherine M Nissen, Karyn K Heavner, me, and Lisa Cockburn. 

The letter read:

——–

Landman and Glantz’s paper in the January 2009 issue of AJPH is a litany of ad hominem attacks on those who have been critical of Glantz’s work, with no actual defense of that work. This paper seems to be based on the assumption that a researcher’s criticism should be dismissed if it is possible to identify funding that might have motivated the criticism. However, for this to be true it must be that: (1) there is such funding, (2) there is reason to believe the funding motivated the criticism, and (3) the criticism does not stand on its own merit. The authors devote a full 10 pages to (1), but largely ignore the key logical connection, (2). This is critical because if we step back and look at the motives of funders (rather than just using funding as an excuse for ignoring our opponents), we see that researchers tend to get funding from parties that are interested in their research, even if the researcher did not seek funding from that party (Marlow, 2008).

Most important, the authors completely ignore (3). Biased motives (whether related to funding or not) can certainly make us nervous that authors have cited references selectively, or in an epidemiology study have chopped away years of data to exaggerate an estimated association, or have otherwise hidden something. [Note: In case it is not obvious, these are subtle references to Glantz’s own methods.] But a transparent valid critique is obviously not impeached by claims of bias. The article’s only defense against the allegation that Glantz’s reporting “was uncritical, unsupportable and unbalanced” is to point to supposed “conflicts of interest” of the critics. If Glantz had an argument for why his estimates are superior to the many competing estimates or why the critiques were wrong, this would seem a convenient forum for this defense, but no such argument appears. Rather, throughout this paper it seems the reader is expected to assume that Glantz’s research is infallible, and that any critiques are unfounded. This is never the case with any research conducted, and surely the authors must be aware that any published work is open to criticism.

Indeed, presumably there are those who disagree with Glantz’s estimates who conform to his personal opinions about who a researcher should be taking funding from, and yet we see no response to them. For example, even official statistics that accept the orthodoxy about second hand smoke include a wide range of estimates (e.g., the California Environmental Protection Agency (2005) estimated it causes 22,700-69,600 cardiac deaths per year), and much of the range implies Glantz’s estimates are wrong. But in a classic example of “a-cell epidemiology” [Note: This is a metaphoric reference to the 2×2 table of exposure status vs. disease status; the cell counting individuals with the exposure and the disease is usually labeled “a”.], Glantz has collected exposed cases to report, but tells us nothing of his critics who are not conveniently vulnerable to ad hominem attacks.

It is quite remarkable that given world history, and not least the recent years in the U.S., people seem willing to accept government as unbiased and its claims as infallible. Governments are often guilty of manipulating research (Kempner, 2008). A search of the Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects database (http://report.nih.gov/crisp/CRISPQuery.aspx) on the National Institute of Health’s website found that one of the aims of the NCI grant that funded Landman and Glantz’s research (specified in their acknowledgement statement) is to “Continue to describe and assess the tobacco industry’s evolving strategies to influence the conduct, interpretation, and dissemination of science and how the industry has used these strategies to oppose tobacco control policies.” Cleary this grant governs not only the topic but also the conclusions of the research, a priori concluding that the tobacco industry continues to manipulate research, and motivating the researcher to write papers that support this. Surely it is difficult to imagine a clearer conflict of interest than, “I took funding that required me to try to reach a particular conclusion.”

The comment “[t]hese efforts can influence the policymaking process by silencing voices critical of tobacco industry interests and discouraging other scientists from doing research that may expose them to industry attacks” is clearly ironic. It seems to describe exactly what the authors are attempting to do to Glantz’s critics, discredit and silence them, to say nothing of Glantz’s concerted campaign to destroy the career of one researcher whose major study produced a result Glantz did not like (Enstrom, 2007; Phillips, 2008). If Glantz were really interested in improving science and public health, rather than defending what he considers to be his personal turf, he would spend his time explaining why his numbers are better. Instead, he spends his time outlining (and then not even responding to) the history of critiques of his work, offering only his personal opinions about the affiliations of his critics in his defense.

References

1. Landman, A., and Glantz, Stanton A. Tobacco Industry Efforts to Undermine Policy-Relevant Research. American Journal of Public Health. January 2009; 99(1):1-14.

2. Marlow, ML. Honestly, Who Else Would Fund Such Research? Reflections of a Non-Smoking Scholar. Econ Journal Watch. 2008 May; 5(2):240-268.

3. California Environmental Protection Agency. Identification of Environmental Tobacco Smoke as a Toxic Air Contaminant. Executive Summary. June 2005.

4. Kempner, J. The Chilling Effect: How Do Researchers React to Controversy? PLoS Medicine 2008; 5(11):e222.

5. Enstrom, JE. Defending legitimate epidemiologic research: combating Lysenko pseudoscience. Epidemiologic Perspectives & Innovations 2007, 4:11.

6. Phillips, CV. Commentary: Lack of scientific influences on epidemiology. International Journal of Epidemiology. 2008 Feb;37(1):59-64; discussion 65-8.

7. Libin, K. Whither the campus radical? Academic Freedom. National Post. October 1, 2007.

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Our conflict of interest statement submitted with this was — as has long been my practice — an actual recounting of our COIs, unlike anything Glantz or anyone in tobacco control would ever write. It read:

The authors have experienced a history of attacks by those, like Glantz, who wish to silence heterodox voices in the area of tobacco research; our attackers have included people inside the academy (particularly the administration of the University of Alberta School of Public Health (National Post, 2007)), though not Glantz or his immediate colleagues as far as we know. The authors are advocates of enlightened policies toward tobacco and nicotine use, and of improving the conduct of epidemiology, which place us in political opposition to Glantz and his colleagues. The authors conduct research on tobacco harm reduction and receive support in the form of a grant to the University of Alberta from U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company; our research would not be possible if Glantz et al. succeeded in their efforts to intimidate researchers and universities into enforcing their monopoly on funding. Unlike the grant that supported Glantz’s research, our grant places no restrictions on the use of the funds, and certainly does not pre-ordain our conclusions. The grantor is unaware of this letter, and thus had no input or influence on it. Dr. Phillips has consulted for U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company in the context of product liability litigation and is a member of British American Tobacco’s External Scientific Panel.

Serious ethical concerns about public health research conduct; the case of vape convention air quality measurement

by Carl V Phillips

A recent paper in Tobacco Control (official version; unpaywalled version), “Electronic cigarette use and indoor air quality in a natural setting”, in which Eric K Soule, Sarah F Maloney, Tory R Spindle, Alyssa K Rudy, Marzena M Hiler, and Caroline O Cobb, of Thomas Eissenberg’s FDA-funded shop at Virginia Commonwealth University, reports on the researchers’ surreptitious observations at a vape convention. The research methods employed are extremely troubling to me and many others. Continue reading

New FDA-funded @SDSU research establishes that public health researchers are remarkably dim

by Carl V Phillips

I was not going to post today, but there is so much hilarious chatter about this new press release from San Diego State University, and their FDA-funded “research” on e-cigarettes that I could not resist. This simplistic research about web searches related to e-cigarettes deserves a paragraph-by-paragraph dissection.

Oh, and of course there is a new journal paper that goes with it. But, seriously, who cares? Academic “public health” practice has descended to the point that a journal paper is just an excuse to write an even more misleading press release. It is time to stop pretending otherwise and just peer-review the press release. I am sure if I dissected the paper itself I could identify numerous problems that are not evident from just the press release — that seems to always be the case — but, again, who cares? It is not as if anyone in public health pays any attention to the quality of the science. When the paper is cited, those citing it will effectively just be citing the press release.

It is worth starting with the last bit, to see who shares the “credit” here:

The study was funded by 5R01CA169189-02, RCA173299A, and T32CA009492 from the National Cancer Institute and U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Tobacco Products. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not represent the official views of the funders. The funders had no role in the design, conduct, or interpretation of the study nor the preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript. Additional collaborators on this study included: Benjamin Althouse of the Santa Fe Institute; Jon-Patrick Allem of the University of Southern California; Eric C. Leas of the University of California, San Diego; and Mark Dredze of Johns Hopkins University.

About San Diego State University: San Diego State University is a major public research institution that provides transformative experiences, both inside and outside of the classroom…blah, blah, blah….

Ok, on to the silliness, which begins with:

The Oxford Dictionaries selected “vape”–as in, to smoke from an electronic cigarette–as word of the year in 2014. It turns out that Internet users’ search behavior tells a similar story.

Between 2009 and 2015, the number of people in the United States seeking information online about vaping rose dramatically, according to a recent study co-led by San Diego State University Internet health expert John W. Ayers and University of North Carolina tobacco control expert Rebecca S. Williams as a part of the Internet Tobacco Vendors Study.

Yes, that really is the start of the press release. Normally cutesy hooks like this are not worth thinking about, but this is ostensibly a scientific press release, so let’s think like scientists for a moment. What could “tells a similar story” possibly mean? What story? The reader is presented with no story that offers any similarity to anything, let alone to search histories.

If the reader has the knowledge to fill in what the first sentence represents, then this becomes even sillier. The “word of the year” is not a measure of prevalence, or the first derivative of prevalence, of a word’s use. Those play some role, obviously, but the choice is ultimately a decision about what word seems to be a good representative of the changing zeitgeist, as evidenced by the many nominees and winners that are not particularly common. You would think that most scholars already know this, and those who did not know would invest the three minutes’ of research it would take to discover it before invoking the inaccurate analogy. But we are talking about public health activists, not scholars.

Oh, and of course, “to smoke from an electronic cigarette” would be a fairly stupid thing to do. Of course, don’t blame the linguistically careful folks at Oxford Dictionaries for that error; their definition makes clear they know that there is no smoke involved. That error is the fault of the team of crack team of FDA-funded researchers.

Moving on with the study results, we learn the shocking news that searches for a product category increase dramatically when it becomes fairly popular, as compared to when it was barely known. In other news, searches for “greek yogurt”, “is Pluto a planet”, and “Bernie Sanders” increased dramatically between 2009 and 2015.

E-cigarettes and other hand-held vaporizers began appearing on American shelves in the mid-2000s. Since then, they’ve quickly risen in popularity while regulators have been slow to adapt smoking legislation to account for these devices.

It is not clear which “other hand-held vaporizers” are not e-cigarettes, but never mind that. Also, we will just gloss over the odd use of either “mid-” or “shelves” (it should either say “began appearing via internet sales” or “late-2000s”; but, hey, it is just so much to ask to get simple background facts right). Focus instead on the last bit, in which these people who are supposedly issuing a press release about research lead off with an unsupported normative claim (that regulators should adapt smoking legislation to “account for” [sic] e-cigarettes). Notice that they slip this in as if it goes without saying, when it is actually a far more significant claim than anything in the research results they actually report. That, of course, is SOP in “public health”, where research is done primarily as an excuse to express unsupported political opinions.

“Big Tobacco has largely taken over the e-cigarette industry. Alongside unchecked marketing and advertising, e-cigarettes have exploded online,” Ayers said.

So in public health land, “largely taken over” means having less than half the market share (which is itself divided amongst several competing companies), and “unchecked” means “subject to the countless restrictions on all marketing communication, as well as specific restrictions such as not being able to tell the truth about the health risks.” Um, yeah. So that would mean that Apple has largely taken over the smartphone industry, and is free to lie to consumers about their products with impunity.

Internet users’ search history bears this out.

Wait, what? (Note that I am not skipping any text.) How can any data about search history “bear out” any of the claims in the previous sentence? The closest it could come to any of them would be that an increase in searches would probably be associated with that “exploded online” thing, though the latter seems to be a claim about the supply of information while the searches reflect demand for information.

Ayers, Williams, and a team of colleagues from across the country examined search history from Google Trends, which includes statistics on what specific words people searched for, the search term’s popularity relative to all other concurrent searches in a specified time, date and geographic location. From this data, the researchers can find patterns that point to Internet searchers’ apparent preferences and attitudes.

Ok, that is a nice high-school science project or term-paper-level exercise. One can learn something from that. Let’s see if they did….

When they looked at searches related to e-cigarettes starting in 2009, they found a sharply rising trend through 2015 with no end in sight.

I am not sure if that is LOL funny for everyone reading it, or if it is just me. I actually had to pause for a couple of minutes before resuming. As already noted, obviously there is going to be a sharply rising trend from 2009. But it is the “no end in sight” that really got me, at several levels. Why would anyone in their right mind even think to mention that? Internet use is increasing and e-cigarettes are increasing in popularity; what possible end are they even talking about?

Moreover, at a deeper scientific level, we are talking about a social phenomenon that could end, and quite abruptly, whatever the historical trend is. This is not like claiming there is no end in sight for the warming of the planet, which could be based on what we know about atmospheric chemistry, which is not affected by social proclivities that can change abruptly. Social trends can change abruptly. I am sure that the data for searches of “Bernie Sanders” follows a very similar trend to searches for e-cigarettes, but any real social scientist can foresee an end to that trend.

For example, in 2014 there were about 8.5 million e-cigarette-related Google searches. For 2015, their model forecasts an increase in these searchers of about 62-percent. Looking at geographic data, they found that e-cigarette searches have diffused across the nation, suggesting that e-cigarettes have become a widespread cultural phenomenon in every U.S. state. Over the same time period, searches for e-cigarettes far outpaced other “smoking alternatives” such as snus (smokeless tobacco) or nicotine gum or patches.

I am not sure what that first sentence means, but it obviously does not mean what it says. I would guess that readers of this blog alone conducted most of 8.5 million “e-cigarette-related” Google searches in 2014. Obviously researchers can choose to study whatever specific phenomena they want to, narrowing what they are counting up, but they need to say what they are doing. The fact that someone would put out an obviously incorrect number like this and that the press would dutifully report it without thinking it through speaks volumes about what a joke public health discourse has become.

The results about states is equally useful information. I mean, who would have guessed that the primitive tribes of Tennessee and the transcendent life forms in Oregon would have similar internet search behavior to the rest of the country? It is not surprising that the searches exceeded those for other low-risk alternatives (though I have no idea what their scare quotes are supposed to mean — presumably it is innuendo that alternatives to smoking are not really alternatives to smoking). Though I have to wonder if their methodology missed most of the searches for smokeless tobacco, which probably used established brand names rather than the word “snus”.

The researchers published their findings today in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. (Note: this URL will be active after the embargo lifts)

Oh, look, I don’t have to wonder. I could go read the paper and learn their exact methodology. Just kidding. I have little doubt that I would still not know, given the poor quality of methods reporting in public health research. (Also I would have to go search for it, since the aforementioned URL does not actually exist on that page — the smallest of the many errors that appear.) Since there is really no chance that anything useful will come of that effort, I am skipping it. Anyone who actually bothers to read the paper can use the comments to backfill anything good I might have missed.

What most concerns the researchers, though, is that when people search for e-cigarette information, they’re using search terms like: “best e-cig,” “buy vapes” or “shop vaping.”

Why should anyone care about what most concerns these researchers? They should not. Being able to run simple statistics on Google searches implies absolutely no moral authority to opine about, let alone ability to analyze, what is better for society. (Incidentally, what would most concern me would be if the phrases “buy vapes” or “shop vaping” were more common than grammatically sensible phrases. I assume they actually were not, and that they were intentionally cherrypicked to try to ridicule consumers.)

In any case, in what world would it be at all concerning that most of the searches for a consumer product would be a combination of seeking review information (as “best e-cig” is presumably intended to do) and purchase options? It would certainly not surprise anyone.

“One of the most surprising findings of this study was that searches for where to buy e-cigarettes outpaced searches about health concerns or smoking cessation,” Williams said.

I stand corrected. Let me amend that to, “It certainly would not surprise anyone with a clue about how the world works.”

“Despite what the media and e-cigarette industry might have you believe, there is little research evidence to support the notion that e-cigarettes are safe or an effective tool to help smokers quit. Given that, we think it’s revealing that there were fewer searches about safety and cessation topics than about shopping.” In fact, she said, searches for e-cigarette safety concerns represented less than 1 percent of e-cigarette searches, and this number has declined over the past two years.

Um… what?

Set aside all the usual lies that are embedded in that, about what the evidence shows, the “safe” wordplay, misrepresentation of the predominant message in the media, and misrepresenting what is permitted in marketing. Just skip to the specific claim here, that he seems to think that those phenomena (even if they actually were true) would cause people to do more searches for background information than for product reviews and purchases. Seriously?

Even for a product where most of the background information you would find from a random search was not utter bullshit, as it is in this case, consumers are still going to mostly search regarding purchase plans. People who are seriously interested in that other information develop networks of trusted sources; they would get nowhere doing random searches. Anyone who is shopping for e-cigarettes has already acquired the information that e-cigarettes are worth shopping for, presumably knowing that they are a low-risk alternative to smoking. Why, exactly, would he want to search for that?

Frankly, I would be extremely disturbed to learn that many short-phrase searches about e-cigarettes were seeking scientific information. That would truly be a tragic commentary on people’s understanding of how to learn anything about controversial issues via the internet.

If these “researchers” actually had any expertise in the research they were conducting — which is to say, about consumer online search behavior, not about tobacco politics — we might have gotten some useful information. For example, how do these statistics (which are inevitably very weak, depending on their choices of phrases and how they were coded) compare to those for other products? What is the quality of information that someone would get were she to pursue such a blind search for information? This speaks to a common problem in “public health”, where research follows political interests rather than scientific skills. There is absolutely no reason why someone doing this particular research would need to know anything about e-cigarettes, other than some basic vocabulary. They should, however, know something about real-world consumer behavior.

A linguistic trend also emerged from the study. The term “vaping” has quickly overtaken “e-cigarettes” as the preferred nomenclature in the United States. That’s important for health officials and researchers to recognize, the team noted. Surveillance of smoking trends is done primarily through surveys and questionnaires, and knowing which terms people use can affect the accuracy of this data.

Wow, that is almost useful information. Of course most of us already knew that. We also know that “vaping” is an act whereas “e-cigarettes” are a product, and so they are not really commensurate, which is a rather important distinction for doing those surveys and questionnaires. (“Hey, guys, according to this new study, we should stop asking ‘have you used an e-cigarette’ and start asking ‘have you used a vaping’.”) Those of us who know how to do surveys, of course, already make a point to define what we are talking about, including offering the multiple popular terms if that is an issue.

Also, one of the major weapons anti-smoking advocacy groups have is counter-advertising. In the Internet age, advertisers look for specific keywords to target their advertisements. Knowing that more people use the term “vaping” than “e-cig” helps them be more targeted and effective, Ayers said.

So “counter-advertising” in the interests of “anti-smoking” should make sure to intercept all those searches for “vaping” in order to make sure the anti-vaping propaganda reaches its target audience of people who want to avoid smoking. Yup, they pretty much earned their FDA money with that one.

“Labels do matter,” Ayers said. “When you call it ‘vaping,’ you’re using a brand new word that doesn’t have the same historical baggage as ‘smoking’ or ‘cigarette.’ They’ve relabeled it. Health campaigns need to recognize this so they can keep up.”

“They’ve relabeled it”? Who is this “they”? Oh yeah, I remember, it is the Oxford Dictionary people. The bastards.

Of course what “health campaigns” really need to do to keep up is to learn something about health. They are not going to achieve that by doing random internet searches, by the way. Nor by reading press releases or papers by the tobacco control industry’s pet academics.