On February 18, the Journal of the American Heart Association retracted a study published last June which claimed that the use of electronic cigarettes increased the occurrence of heart attacks. The study was referenced by multiple news outlets and social media publishers, resulting in news stories that added to public concern and confusion resulting from the vaping crisis reported last year. The retraction cited concerns about the reliability of the study, after a data revision requested by the journal editor was determined not to be possible due to lack of access to source data.
The original study, written by Stanton Glantz and Dharma Bhatta of the University of California San Francisco and funded by taxpayers through the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, stated that vaping and cigarette smoking posed similar heart attack risks. Glantz is the Truth Initiative Distinguished Professor of Tobacco Control and has written numerous studies documenting the effects of tobacco consumption and secondhand smoke exposure, and is also a self-proclaimed expert on the electronic cigarettes, marijuana, and sugar industries. Dr. Glantz has gained a reputation for being blunt and abrasive, taking controversial positions on smoking and promoting conspiracy theories surrounding tobacco industry lobbies.
Despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, the study concluded that electronic cigarettes were not a useful tool for smoking harm reduction, stating that “e‐cigarettes should not be promoted or prescribed as a less risky alternative to combustible cigarettes and should not be recommended for smoking cessation among people with or at risk of myocardial infarction.” After publication, University of Louisville tobacco researcher Brad Rodu analyzed the results and noted that the study included cigarette smokers who had experienced a heart attack before taking up vaping, and after excluding those results, the association between electronic cigarettes and heart attacks was no longer evident. Rodu composed a letter to the Journal of the American Heart Association calling out the discrepancy and requesting an investigation into the study.
More than seven months after the letter, after continuing pressure from other researchers, the Journal of the American Heart Association retracted the study, citing “the study in the above‐referenced article did not fully account for certain information in the Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health [PATH] Wave 1 survey.” The retraction statement had been revised after Dr. Glantz threatened litigation against the publication claiming that the original text of the retraction implied deliberate malfeasance on his part. Even after the retraction, Glantz posted on his blog that the journal was part of a conspiracy by Big Tobacco instead of evaluating the evidence that was presented by other peers.
American researchers and lawmakers have had difficulty comprehending harm reduction policies for improving public health, with most advocating harsh punishment and enforcement measures for anyone that is unable to completely abstain from an addictive substance. Political discourse often descends into a moral panic whenever discussions are raised, resulting in harsh legislation that is either unenforceable or ineffective at addressing the primary issue, improving public health through education and safer alternatives that can lead to eventual abstention.