ScienceSkepticism

Vape Company BUYS a Science Journal

This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to patreon.com/rebecca!

Back in the beforetimes, I talked about a dangerous problem with vaping: people were experiencing lung problems that were likely caused by bootleg vapes (usually the kind with THC) that were cut with vitamin E oil, which caused a buildup of fats in the lungs, causing users’ immune systems to freak out and attack their own bodies. Then 2020 rolled around and COVID-19 became a much bigger threat to people’s lungs, so the vape problem fell out of the news cycle and also out of the scientific journals and the CDC’s updates.

It was never 100% established that the problem was vitamin E oil so I’ve occasionally checked back in to see if any new studies have appeared. They haven’t, but there IS some news about legitimate nicotine-based e-cigarettes: they’re fucking evil. Here’s the tl;dr: Juul paid a fairly respectable scientific journal $51,000 to publish 11 pro-vaping studies conducted by people on Juul’s payroll.

Now, this shouldn’t come as a huge shock — Juul is the most popular e-cig brand, and they’re partially owned by Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, which makes Marlboro cigarettes. Yeah, they kind of had to rebrand things because I guess Philip Morris is no longer considered a trusted name. You may know that in the 1950s the tobacco industry’s own studies showed that cigarettes were directly responsible for giving people cancer, but they continued to sow distrust of that science in public while burying incriminating research, shutting down labs, and outright lying. But what you may not realize is that that industry never stopped lying about the scientific consensus of their products.

Just a decade ago, companies like Marlboro were still claiming that their low-tar cigarettes like Marlboro Lights (rebranded as Marlboro Gold after a court case in 2009) are safer than other cigarettes, which studies show is simply not true. In fact, Philip Morris employees testified under oath that the company’s own research showed that smokers would take deeper pulls on low tar cigarettes, resulting in the same amount of nicotine but, as the American Cancer Society finally figured out in 1996, actually increasing lung cancer deaths by allowing carcinogens to go deeper into the lungs.

The extent to which the tobacco industry continues to try to buy scientific credibility cannot be overstated. I highly recommend you read that entire Atlantic article, but here’s a particular highlight: Philip Morris hired Peter Valberg, a former faculty member at the Harvard School of Public Health and consultant to the EPA and the Justice Department, to testify in their favor about the low-tar issue. Valberg cited a Philip Morris-funded study that “analyzed urine samples of about 70 smokers who switched from full-flavored Marlboro Reds to Marlboro Lights. The test revealed that their average nicotine levels dropped significantly within six months.”

But the study also had a control group of smokers who did NOT switch to Lights. Their nicotine levels ALSO dropped significantly within six months.

“Asked about the control group in cross-examination, Valberg seemed flustered. He argued that the goal of the study was to look at what happened to smokers who switched, not to compare them to those who did not.”

Is that someone who doesn’t understand the scientific method, or someone who was paid a lot of money to forget his understanding of the scientific method? The Atlantic quotes one tobacco researcher who said “These people are not scientists,” said Glantz, of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. “They are public-relations people who happen to have degrees in science. These are people who make their living producing results that their clients want. And that’s not science.” And I can back that up, as someone who is, kind of, a public relations person who happens to have a degree in science. PR and marketing people are the worst. But yeah, in the end, it’s all the same: a scientist who did lasting damage to the public’s trust of science.

And as I say, it’s still happening today. The “low tar” fight in the 2000s happened specifically because tobacco companies were desperate to find a “healthy” product to offer people who finally caught on that cigarettes kill. And today, that product is vapes, or e-cigarettes, which really, truly are slightly healthier than cigarettes.

Remember, that outbreak of lung problems occurred almost exclusively in bootleg THC vapes (which is why I pointed out in my previous video that a huge problem here was simply prohibition — in the same way that many Americans suddenly started dying from drinking bathtub gin in the 1920s, and many people around the world die from back alley abortions when they can’t get legal options, outlawing something opens up an unregulated market looking to take advantage of an eager demand. 

But because nicotine remains legal in the US, the nicotine vape market doesn’t have that problem. So yes, e-cigarettes are healthier — wait, that sounds wrong. Let’s say “less dangerous.” Tobacco cigarettes contain not just nicotine but thousands of harmful chemicals like formaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide that you set on fire and draw into your lungs, while e-cigarettes can focus mostly on the super addictive chemical you’re really after, and you don’t have to set anything on fire to get it. 

But it’s not enough for companies like Philip Morris USA — sorry, “Altria” — to market vapes as a slightly less dangerous cigarette. They have to go on to do what they’ve done repeatedly in the past — market their still-dangerous products to kids and lie about the science.

The industry knows that data shows 90% of smokers start smoking before they’re 20, and 60% start before they’re even teenagers. If you’re selling an addictive substance that will almost assuredly shorten the lifespan of a person, you want to get that consumer hooked on your product as early as possible to get as much money from them as possible. Hence, Joe Camel and the Marlboro cowboy, advertisements in sports magazines, and behind-the-scenes discussions about using comic strips and honey to appeal to kids. Honey! There’s an interesting concept that was ahead of its time: Juul released flavors like mango, fruit medley, creme and cucumber, and advertised them in outlets like the Cartoon Network, Seventeen Magazine, and Nickelodeon and, I shit you not, “socialstudiesforkids.com.”

So naturally people have been a wee bit wary of Juul, and have been calling for regulations that might stop them from, you know, getting an entire new generation hooked on a dangerous and otherwise kind of boring and pointless drug. I mean, seriously, cannabis is not addictive, it gets you high, and it has basically no dangerous side effects. Nicotine is extremely addictive, it helps you poop, and gives you heart attacks. There’s really no comparison. If you want the addiction and the pooping just drink coffee. At least it’s cheaper and your heart probably won’t explode.

Sorry, I know I’ve fallen down a bit of a rabbit hole here but I do think it’s important to remember that this industry is, much like the pharmaceutical industry, run by absolute sociopaths.

So with all this pressure on Juul to stop marketing to kids, Juul is taking action. No, not by marketing to adults, but by BUYING AN ENTIRE ISSUE OF A SCIENTIFIC JOURNAL for tens of thousands of dollars to publish pro-Juul studies and then, and I cannot stress how fucking shady this is, PAYING AN EXTRA $6,500 to make that journal open access so that you, the general public, can read those laudatory studies in full without paying for the usual subscription.

The Philadelphia Inquirer spoke to one of the peer reviewers who said the American Journal of Health Behaviors sent her two of the studies to look at for what she only knew was a “special issue” about e-cigarettes, failing to mention that they were sponsored entirely by Juul. When she read them, it was obvious something was fishy so she asked the editor, Elbert D. Glover, what was up, at which point he finally came clean. That reviewer said one of the papers should obviously not be published at all. In the end, the AJHB published 11 of the 12 manuscripts they received from JUUL but the reviewer couldn’t say whether the one she balked at was the one that was dropped, because “I was so disgusted with how it went that I didn’t look at what ran.”

She wasn’t the only one. Three of the journal board members resigned in protest, and Glover retired just after it was published. I’d take a moment here to expand upon what a giant piece of shit Glover must be, but I realize I’m in no position to criticize. I’ve already accepted $50,000 from Uri Gellar to have my final YouTube video before my own retirement be a special look at how actually spoon bending is real and not at all deserving of ridicule.

I’m hopeful that more people see this story because I worry that people today look back at the 1950s and ‘60s and think, “Wow, look at all those rubes smoking cigarettes and actually believing tobacco companies when they tell them to ignore everyone suddenly dying from lung cancer, a disease that was considered extremely rare prior to cigarettes. What a bunch of idiots.” Because it’s still happening! The exact same companies are doing the exact same thing: paying off scientists to convince the American public that these products and the way they’re marketed is good and normal and fine, when it quite obviously is not.

So to all those fellow kids out there watching, let me tell you this: drugs ARE cool, which is why you should do your research and pick the good ones. Hold on, no, that’s not the message. YouTube will demonetize me for that. Let’s go with this: it’s seriously not cool to get addicted to a drug that tastes like apple pie and makes you poop. Like, it’s incredible that someone managed to make that sound cool. I see why they called their company “Juul” and not “Apple pie poop vapes.”

Oh also you shouldn’t be watching this video. This video was not made for kids. Go away.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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2 Comments

  1. Decades ago, poking around in bound volumes of the British Medical Journal, I ran across a 1927 enquiry letter from a GP somewhere in the home counties. He had been practicing for 30 plus years and had just encountered his first cases of lung cancer. He noted that both victims were heavy smokers and wondered if anyone else had any similar experience.

    The subsequent chirping of crickets seems to have lasted at least three decades.

  2. Hi Rebecca, a long-time marijuana addict here. And as a regular consumer and long-time fan of your work who has never paid you a cent, I think you owe it to me to reconsider your (apparently) off-hand comment about marijuana being “not addictive”.

    In fact, cannabis use disorder was included in the DSM-5, and my my own (admittedly extreme) experience, withdrawal symptoms include sleeplessness, hot flashes, sweating, lost of appetite and sex drive, and irritability. Moreover, because of my addiction, which I have been combating since I was 15 in the mid-90s’, I have missed out on countless hours of social activity, spent tens of thousands of dollars (sometimes at the expense of food or rent), and have found myself becoming increasingly isolated and lonely as I grow older. I’ve never been happy about my pot use, but here I am in my 40’s, just as dependent as ever. At the moment I am actually receiving government disability assistance for my addiction (and associated depression).

    I am all for legalizing weed (especially as someone who has been arrested for buying $15 worth!), and agree that it is a better alternative to tobacco or basically any other drug including alcohol. I do consider myself lucky to be addicted to it, but only when considering the alternatives. It’s not nearly as unhealthy as many drugs, but it clearly still has the potential to be additive; and, in my opinion, it can still therefore cause great harm, just as any addiction can.

    Unfortunately, the myth that weed is “not addictive” makes it harder for people like me to get help. Friends don’t take you seriously. Doctors won’t write pot prescriptions unless I falsely present withdrawal symptoms (e.g., insomnia) as medical conditions that need treatment. In fact, my parents thought nothing of plying me with weed at an early age exactly because of this myth, and failed to believe me when I confessed to my addiction.

    I know it was beside the point of your otherwise excellent video, Rebecca, but this issue it near and dear to my heart. And my admiration for you is such that I simply couldn’t resist offering you my perspective. If my comment makes some small contribution to the way you think about the world, it would be immensely gratifying to me, as you have done so much for my own intellectual development over the years.

    Thank you so much for your time.

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