Health Check newsletter: Parallels between vaping and covid-19 debates
Health Check newsletter: Parallels between vaping and covid-19 debates

Health Check newsletter: Parallels between vaping and covid-19 debates

Hello and welcome to this week’s Health Check, the weekly newsletter that gives you the health and fitness news you can truly trust. To receive this free, weekly newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

Last week, one of my stories was about whether vaping is helpful or harmful in reducing the smoking rate. It was based on research that looked at whether vaping encourages teens to start smoking cigarettes.

The study found that contrary to fear, vaping probably does not act as a gateway for smoking. In the UK, as the steam rate among teenagers has risen, tobacco smoking has not followed the same trend.

While teens who smoke are more likely to end up as smokers, it’s probably because those who try to steam are the same people who would have quit smoking anyway. It could be because it’s the teens who are innately attracted to experiments and breaking rules, or maybe they copy family members who also steam or smoke.

When uncovering new research, the usual approach is at New scientist and other respected news sources are to show the paper to other scientists to get their bid on it and, if we have room, to include a comment from them in the story. We are trying to find people who are experts in the field but who were not involved in the research so they will be impartial.

But vaping is one of those topics where I usually have a good idea of ​​what my chosen expert will have to say about any new study.

Opinions about e-cigarettes have become so polarized that most researchers and health professionals either say they are wonderful because they help people quit smoking, or terrible because they just make people get stuck on a other nicotine habit.

This is a topic I first wrote two decades ago. In fact, it was my first story ever before New scientist, and it helped me get a permanent job at the magazine. Even then, when the idea of ​​safer cigarettes was new, tobacco researchers began to divide along ideological lines.

The UK is an outlier on this issue. As vaping became more popular, some leading figures in Public Health England believed that while it poses some health risks, vaping is nowhere near as harmful as inhaling the carcinogenic chemicals in common tobacco smoke.

As a result, UK laws around e-cigarettes are relatively lenient, and doctors advise smokers that if they can’t quit, they should switch to vaping instead. This is not the case in most other countries, such as the United States and Australia, where many doctors see vaping as a dangerous health nuisance.

Part of the explanation in the United States is that vape manufacturers there were given relatively free rein in terms of advertising. The manufacturer of one of the most popular vape brands, Juul, was accused of marketing its products to teenagers, though the company eventually settled the case without admitting any wrongdoing.

The U.S. now has a higher number of high school students who regularly vape, about 11 percent, compared to about 5 percent in the UK, though studies are hard to compare as they do not use the same wording.

There was also a recent United States health scare over some cases of severe lung damage from vaping, although this later turned out to be caused by a black-market cannabis vaping liquid filled with a harmful substance.

The division of opinion on vaping in the medical community is in some respects useful for journalists like me if we are to portray a diversity of opinions about the results of a study. I can make sure my article looks “balanced”. But that makes it hard to know where the truth lies if everyone has fixed attitudes, regardless of any new evidence.

I have similar concerns every time I write about covid-19, an area that has also become extremely polarized that no one can have avoided noticing.

Opinions are divided between the more covid-cautious, who argue for tighter restrictions on the virus, and those who want an end to the precautions.

Iceland has just turned from one side to the other. After aggressively suppressing the virus for the past two years, the country stopped all legal restrictions two weeks ago. The country’s Ministry of Health even said that Iceland was trying to obtain “herd immunity” through both infection and vaccination.

When I interviewed an Icelandic public health chief, it became clear that the plan is not as radical as it sounds, as the Icelandic government does not use the term herd immunity in the same way that Britain does.

But the country’s public health body really believes that most people will have to get infected with omicron as a way out of the pandemic.

I would give a balanced analysis of Iceland’s strategy, but just like with vaping, I could almost have foreseen what every expert I spoke to would say before I called them. I wonder if we can all – including myself – get stuck in our opinions on certain topics. At least that’s the story hereso you can decide for yourself over Iceland’s policy.


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Some villages in the Cappadocia region of Turkey have a dark secret. Their inhabitants are plagued by a particularly ugly form of lung cancer called mesothelioma. “When we wake up, we see if we have had a cough, for the one who coughs is considered ready to die,” said one of the villagers. “If we see someone coughing when they walk down the street, everyone looks at them and thinks they’ll be the next.”

This cancer usually occurs in people who have been exposed to asbestos, but this is not the case here. For four decades, scientists and doctors have been trying to solve this puzzle.

Read about how the work has revealed a new source of cancer risk which can affect people across the globe.

Take a look at our upcoming lecture on “True crime: the science of psychopaths and forensics”, Held in London on 16 March at 19.00

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