Here we are, with summer coming to a close, and I am more than a little surprised to find that I have devoted most of my working time during 2021 to a single topic–electronic cigarettes. I’ve never been a smoker or a vaper, and paid no attention to e-cigarettes until late last year, when I began reporting a story about Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids for the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
The more I learned, the more I came to believe that the topic meets the three criteria that I try to apply when deciding what stories to report. (1) Is it important? (2) Is it being covered well by others, i.e., do I have something to contribute? (3) Can my coverage in some way, big or small, make a difference?
(Those of you familiar with Effective Altruism will recognize those criteria as the framework of importance, neglectedness and tractability used by EA-influenced organizations such as the Open Philanthropy Project when deciding where to allocate resources to solve a problem.)
Tobacco policy is important–a life and death matter, literally, and one involving questions of racial justice and personal freedom as well. The topic is neglected or poorly covered by the mainstream media; misinformation is rampant. My stories are getting read (although not as widely as I would like) so, for now, I’m going to keep writing them.
In the last week, I’ve written two new stories for Medium about e-cigs.
Why do opponents of vaping want to suppress or dismiss science? explores the debate over conflicts of interest in the tobacco-control community. There’s a mini-scoop in the story: I report that Joanna Cohen, a Johns Hopkins University professor who opposes the publication of science that is backed by tobacco or e-cigarette interests, turned for PR advice to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an anti-vaping group. See the problem? She’s opposed to conflicts of interest but collaborating with an organization that has staked out a hard-line, neo-prohibitionist approach to e-cigarettes.
Yesterday, I posted a story with the headline “Vaping can benefit public health.” That’s not my opinion. It’s the conclusion of 15 former presidents of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, who argue in a new paper that a growing body of evidence suggests that vaping, which is safer than smoking, can be an effective way of helping today’s smokers quit. “The potential lifesaving benefits of e-cigarettes for adult smokers deserve attention equal to the risks to youths,” these scientists write. “Millions of middle-aged and older smokers are at high risk of near-future disease and death.” This is rebuke to, among others, government health authorities in the US and elsewhere, Bloomberg and Tobacco-Free Kids, all of which are pushing to restrict access to vapes. The paper by these eminent scientists deserves to be read widely.
If nothing else, my reporting on vaping has reminded me of lessons that we all should have learned long ago–that we should greet pronouncements from foundations and so-called public interest groups with the same skepticism that we apply to government or corporate action.