Some of the nation’s largest – and wealthiest – news outlets did it again: They helped create a ‘crisis’ that didn’t truly exist. In fact, last year many publications sensationalized and spread misinformation on vaping to all corners of the nation, which only seems to have exacerbated the situation.
In reality, experts found the vaping ‘crisis’ was locally and regionally focused, because those areas – not the entire nation – had tainted products introduced to their marketplace.
“Last summer, when people first started going to the hospitals with acute lung injuries, everything about it looked like some kind of tainted product,” says Michelle Minton, a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “It started in the Midwest and spread out from there. It was clearly a supply-chain issue, and by August it was clear that this was illicit THC vaporizers that were being sold on the black market. And then we isolated vitamin E acetate as being the most likely ‘tainted chemical.’”
Vaping is now one of the most popular ways to consume cannabis (it simply means inhaling vapor from an electronic device). The process involves distilling marijuana into an oil which is mixed with other substances and sold in a disposable cartridge.
While vaping has been shown to be effective in stopping people from using cigarettes, vaping nicotine is now popular with many teenagers. But public health officials and federal lawmakers are trying to dissuade younger folks from using the highly addictive substances packed into those cartridges.
With vaping now a normal part of millions of Americans’ daily routines – whether they’re filled with cannabis or nicotine – experts say the sky was never falling. Though you wouldn’t know that if you merely read news reports last year. And here is where the problems began.
“Vaping cannabis has been around and has been really popular. Nothing like this had ever happened,” Minton explained. “It was localized in the US, mostly among young people. But a lot of the news coverage tied vaping cannabis and e-cigarettes and saying it was a vaping problem. The Centers for Disease Control at one point even warned people not to use any vaping products.”
Politicians looking to prohibit teen use of nicotine vaping seized on the media coverage. Some states passed emergency bans on nicotine vaping products, even though there’s no evidence e-cigarettes were involved in the outbreak.
Minton says she has sympathy for reporters writing on deadlines about complicated subjects, but false reporting has serious consequences.
“Basing policy on media reports is not good policy making,” she said. “And even when studies are retracted, they are still out there and still in people’s minds. One study linked heart attacks and vaping, even though people had heart attacks before they started vaping.”
The misinformation has continued into 2020. But since the coronavirus shutdown, coverage of the ‘crisis’ has stopped. Even if the public confusion sowed by those misleading reports hasn’t.
“It actually went down precipitously after the CDC made a clear statement to avoid illicit THC products,” Minton said. “It went down after January, and we haven’t heard any more stories or any more deaths associated with it. But a lot of people still don’t know what really caused it.”