A new survey shows that most Americans support regulations to control what outgoing FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb describes as a youth vaping epidemic. However, the survey questions were designed to get the answers the researchers wanted, rather than to simply measure public attitudes. And some questions were aimed squarely at promoting political actions the researchers support, as is the whole survey.
The AmeriSpeak Spotlight on Health survey was done by NORC at the University of Chicago. NORC (National Opinion Research Center) surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,004 English-speaking adults online and by phone. The survey has a 4.12 percent margin of error.
The survey found that:
The survey was obviously created to generate more support for FDA vaping restrictions, and possibly for legislation in states and municipalities like Chicago. At least one of the researchers, Sherry Emery, has been part of several questionable social media studies about vapers before, and it’s quite clear where these authors stand.
The questions are designed to get the results the researchers want, and the NORC press release reads like a warning letter to incoming FDA acting commissioner Ned Sharpless. And Sharpless will get to read about it in possibly hundreds of newspaper stories — all based on the press release.
“Americans are particularly concerned about teens becoming newly addicted to e-cigarettes, and they support a range of actions the federal government could take to make vaping products less available, less addictive, and less appealing,” said NORC senior vice president Caroline Pearson in the press release. “Commissioner Gottlieb has taken tangible steps to regulate the vaping industry. Whether or not these efforts continue, however, rests on the priorities of the agency’s next commissioner.”
If Americans are concerned about teens “becoming newly addicted,” it’s because they’ve been told that they should be. The same high school survey data Commissioner Gottlieb has used to whip up a frenzy over “a whole new generation becoming addicted to nicotine” shows that under six percent of teens are vaping on 20 or more days a month, which conceivably could indicate habitual use.
Force-feeding propaganda to the public for two years, and then asking what they believe about a topic they never really understood gets predictable results. And that seems to be what the NORC researchers wanted — confirmation that the messages are getting through. The questions they asked are designed to force answers that anti-vaping activists can point to and say, “See? We have public support.”
One question offers survey participants the comfort of picking the “best” answer — and then provides only one answer that could reasonably be chosen: “Even if neither is exactly right, which of the following statements best describes what you think about access to e-cigarettes?” asks the survey. The possible answers are:
“Access to e-cigarettes should be limited because those who would not have used regular cigarettes are using these products and becoming addicted”
“Access to e-cigarettes should be broad because these products are safer than regular cigarettes”
Access to vapes is already limited to adults with proper ID — just like alcohol and cigarettes are limited. Nearly everyone, including vapers and vape shop owners, agrees with that. Choosing the first answer doesn’t necessarily mean the person being surveyed supports further limitations, like banning flavors, hiding vapes in adult-only stores, or restricting online sales. But the researchers are spinning it to mean just that, and most reporters who use the press release as their source when they write their stories will accept the spin without a second thought. It may simply be the case that the 77 percent who agreed with the first answer support the limitations currently in place, which are already robust.
“While e-cigarettes are safer than combustible tobacco products, the public is worried that e-cigarettes are creating a whole new generation of tobacco users who would not otherwise have started,” said Sherry Emery in the NORC press release. “While there are dramatic public health benefits to eliminating cigarette smoking, these gains may come at the cost of addicting a new generation to nicotine and other harmful tobacco products.”
Another survey question asks if e-cigarettes have more nicotine than cigarettes, and the researchers clearly expect participants to answer yes. In their press release, the authors chide the participants for answering the “wrong” way — but the people answering the survey were more correct than the authors.
“E-cigarettes generally contain more nicotine than regular cigarettes,” says the press release. “However, only 21 percent of adults surveyed correctly identified that e-cigarettes contain more nicotine. Twenty-six percent of adults incorrectly believed that e-cigarettes had the same amount of nicotine as regular cigarettes, and 13 percent of adults believed e-cigarettes had less nicotine.”
“Higher levels of nicotine have been shown to increase the addictive effect of e-cigarettes and produce negative health impacts like heart attack and stroke,” they write.
It’s a question designed to elicit an incorrect answer that the researchers want to use to promote action by the FDA. A few questions later, they ask if survey participants support restricting nicotine levels in vapes.
But most of what they say is not true. E-cigarettes essentially have as much nicotine as the user wants them to have, and they range from far less than cigarettes to possibly more, depending on how use is measured. The most celebrated (or reviled) e-cigarette, JUUL, contains 41 mg of nicotine — about one-fifth the quantity in a pack of cigarettes. It may deliver as much nicotine per puff as a cigarette, but like a pack of 20 Camels, it takes 200 puffs to vape a full JUUL pod.
Claiming that high levels of nicotine produces heart attack and stroke is just a lie — unless you’re drinking it. The assertion is based on a study that found more vapers than non-vapers had experienced a heart attack, but could not say whether the events happened before or after they began vaping, and ignored the fact that almost all vapers had smoked cigarettes for years.
The NORC survey also asks if participants support “regulations on e-cigarette advertisements targeting teens,” and of course 78 percent do support them. I would too. Of course, there are no such advertisements now and there never will be, because it would be suicide for any vape manufacturer to create ads that target teens. But everyone who reads about the survey will think that such ads exist, because…why else would we need to regulate them?
When the purpose of doing an opinion poll is anything other than assessing public opinion, be suspicious. In this case, the researchers don’t want to measure public opinion at all. Rather, they want to mold it, and use it as evidence that harsh vaping regulations by the FDA are justified and would be welcomed by the public.
That should embarrass the University of Chicago, and everyone who works at NORC, which is a generally well-regarded research institution. The fact that the FDA will use the survey results to justify its own prohibitionist impulses shouldn’t let NORC off the hook for producing them and allowing these researchers to shamelessly spin them in their press release.