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« My week | Main | Hockney: “I just need a cup of tea and a cigarette” »

Double standards and the futility of making personal attacks on journalists

The Telegraph has just published a series of articles attacking e-cigarettes.

All bar one is behind a paywall but the headlines tell you all you need to know.

On Friday one read 'Instagram promoting vape products to children as young as 13, Telegraph investigation finds'. 

Another reported 'Children as young as 14 are becoming addicted to e-cigarettes, head of Britain’s biggest addiction clinic says'.

On Saturday the paper ran two further reports. One was headlined 'Tobacco companies are using e-cigarettes as a 'Trojan Horse', experts warn'.

The second ('E-cigarettes are creating a generation of nicotine addicts, top scientists warn') started reasonably but then took a more propagandist turn:

E-cigarettes are hotly debated by health experts, with some viewing them as an effective quit smoking device while others are concerned that they have become a popular accessory for young people.

PHE has thrown its weight behind vaping and maintains that it is “95 per cent” less harmful than smoking, a position it took in 2015.

But academics have told the Daily Telegraph that this figure is “simply not credible”, as they say that “very clear picture is emerging” about the dangers that e-cigarettes pose, particularly for young people.

The ‘top scientists/academics’ quoted by the paper were ‘prominent tobacco control activist’ Prof Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at California University; Prof Simon Capewell, ‘an expert in public health’ at Liverpool University; Prof Martin McKee, ‘an expert in European public health’ at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Prof John Ashton, former president of the Faculty of Public Health; Dr Gabriel Scally, president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine; and Mike Daube, emeritus professor of health policy at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.

All these names will be familiar to anyone who has followed the war on smoking for the past two decades. The irony is that I don’t recall many (if any) of the current cheerleaders for vaping criticising them for their repeated fearmongering about the dangers of smoking.

As I have stated many times, I accept that on current evidence the health risks of smoking and vaping are miles apart. Nevertheless, if Glantz, Capewell, McKee, Scally etc can be so wrong about vaping, surely that should prompt a review of some of their more exaggerated claims about smoking, the dangers of 'passive' smoking in particular?

Apparently not.

The same people who are castigating these 'top scientists' for their views on vaping are quite happy it seems to accept without quibble all their claims about smoking.

Double standards?

Meanwhile, another story that broke on Saturday evening was first posted on the Guardian website. Written by Observer journalist Jamie Doward, a regular conduit for ASH-inspired stories, it was headlined 'MPs call for legal smoking age to be raised to 21', and began as follows:

Smokers will be banned from buying cigarettes until they are 21 as part of measures to improve public health being considered by the government.

An influential cross-party group of MPs has proposed raising the minimum smoking age and introducing a levy on big tobacco companies to fund measures to encourage people to quit and to prevent youngsters taking up the habit.

The parliamentary group on smoking and health, backed by 17 health charities and medical organisations, also wants to tighten the rules on showing smoking on TV and in films.

I came late to the story because I was away but I subsequently sent a quote to the Press Association that was picked up by a number of newspapers online including the Daily Mail:

“These proposals infantilise young adults. If you’re 18 and old enough to vote, drive a car and join the army you’re old enough to make an informed decision to smoke.”

(For Forest’s full response click here.)

Needless to say there has been barely a peep about the APPG’s proposals from vaping advocates, most of whom are so deeply aligned with today's anti-smoking agenda that they fail to see that every tobacco control policy will, sooner or later, be used to combat the use of e-cigarettes.

Anyway, back to the Telegraph. The common link between those anti-vaping reports was education editor Camilla Turner, not science editor Sarah Knapton who has been the subject of repeated abuse from vapers and vaping advocates on social media.

I’m not defending Knapton but attacking journalists is rarely the way to win friends and allies. As I wrote here (Rough guide to dealing with the media):

I know what it is to metaphorically bang your head against a brick wall. It's incredibly frustrating when reports are published that appear one-sided, factually incorrect or both. I've experienced this for many, many years. No-one, I believe, has more experience of the futility of engaging with certain journalists who are deaf to the likes of you and me. Nevertheless it must be done and my advice is that abusing individual journalists, often directly, on social media is wholly counter-productive.

Yes, it will make them aware of the extent of your anger and frustration but you can do that privately. It makes little sense to set the dogs on them, which is effectively what you're doing by encouraging others to steam in with similar comments of their own. Human nature is such that if people feel they are being bullied by a mob they will react negatively. The idea that they will suddenly choose to see your point of view is naive.

I'm not saying it's right that journalists don't check the facts or chase contrary viewpoints but it's no use taking it out on individual correspondents. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the report that offended the vaping community earlier this year, for example, some of the subsequent attacks on the Daily Telegraph's science editor Sarah Knapton were deplorable.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist so it's hard to say whether the persistent criticism of Sarah Knapton precipitated the recent flurry of anti-vaping reports in the Telegraph, but I can't imagine it helped.

If I was advising the vaping industry the first thing I would do is suggest a meeting with Knapton and Turner. I'd invite them to visit an R&D facility and they would be top of my list of potential guests to attend the UK Vaping Industry Forum in May.

In the meantime I'd advise the vaping community to stop making personal attacks on journalists. Human nature being what it is, it rarely ends well.

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Reader Comments (4)

From the Sun UK legal smoking age could increase from 18 to 21 in bid for ‘smoke-free generation’

Did they even bother to ask Forest for an opinion?!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019 at 14:41 | Unregistered CommenterFredrik Eich

No, we weren't asked to comment. My guess is that The Sun and most other papers (with the exception of the Guardian/Observer) took their reports from the Press Association.

The PA didn't contact us either but they did include a soundbite from the unsolicited quote we sent them (and every national newspaper) after we read the Guardian/Observer report.

Such quotes sometimes get picked up, sometimes they don't. In this instance the Sun didn't use it but others (including the Mail, Metro and Manchester Evening News) did.

In this instance we had no advance warning of the story until it appeared on the Guardian website on Saturday evening and after that we were playing catch up. It happens.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019 at 15:11 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

Of course all those anti-smoking vapers will attack anyone who refuses to agree 100% with their own position. Personal attacks are just one small element of all anti-smokers’ armoury. Ask any brave scientist or doctor who, in the early days of the anti-smoking movement, refused to get “on board” with all the hype and horror being whipped up against smoking. Careers were ruined, reputations besmirched and funding withheld or withdrawn. They still use it today (didn’t either Enstrom or Kabat lose their university position, or at least have their suitability for it called into question in the last few years, if I recall correctly?). Anti-smoking vapers are merely using a tried-and-tested method for shutting up anyone who disagrees with them, just like their more experienced anti-smoking colleagues have been successfully using for years. The depths to which anti-smokers (both of the vaping and non-vaping variety) will stoop purely to "win the argument" simply has no limits.

Friday, March 8, 2019 at 0:08 | Unregistered CommenterMisty

Moderate smoking saves lives. Ecigs save souls. Why shouldn't we believe the crap about ecigs? It is exactly the same way they started to ruin the tobacco industry, denigrate smoking, and marginalise smokers, with propaganda.

Vaping advocates believe all the propaganda crap about smoking. Why shouldn't we believe negative propaganda about ecigs? After all, it is the same people attacking both. If I don't go to ecigs it is not because of "the lies told by publc health to put smokers off" It is because vapers and their advocates put me off.

Y'know all could be solved if those sanctimonious ecigs save lives moralists would just fight for smoking but they can't do that and then win over the smoker pound. So frankly, who gives a flying fig if the telegraph or anyone else attacks vaping and vapers. First they came for smokers and I did nothing because ....

Friday, March 8, 2019 at 8:43 | Unregistered Commenterpat nurse

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