Vaping is rarely, if ever, touted as a “healthy” alternative to smoking. Instead, those who oppose various restrictions on e-cigs do so on the basis of their belief that electronic cigarettes are preferable to cigarettes from a public health perspective, though e-cigs cannot be said to be entirely devoid of health risks. And yet over and over again I have seen countless articles that claim to dispel the myth of electronic cigarettes being less dangerous than analog cigarettes by citing some study or other showing that lung cells respond negatively to e-cig vapor exposure, overheating of propylene glycol leads to the formation of formaldehyde, or whatever else, i.e. by showing that e-cigs are not entirely without risk. By purposefully misrepresenting the argument in favor of e-cigs over analog cigs, countless reporters have proudly defeated it. After all, it’s far easier to show that e-cigs are not actively healthy than to show that they are not healthier than analog cigs. Likely, this is because the first argument is demonstrably true, while the second one is demonstrably not. Either way, by attacking an argument vaping supporters have never made, vaping opponents do nothing but strike down straw men, and straw manning is kind of an embarrassing way of admitting rationality is not on your side.
Take, for instance, this line from a Mic clickbait article titled There’s Bad News for People Who Think E-Cigarettes Are the Safer Alternative: “While this one experiment doesn’t definitively prove e-cigarettes are a looming health disaster, it is yet another indication that vaping may not be the healthy alternative so many had believed it to be.” The experiment in question here is the study that showed that e-cig aerosols can trigger an inflammatory response in lung cells; the response was found to be heavily dependent on the nicotine content of the aerosol. Further, the study found the carcinogenic acrolein even in nicotine-free e-liquid aerosol, though it neglected to draw attention to the fact that acrolein levels in cigarette smoke are many times higher than there are in e-cigs. Either way, though much has been made of that particular study as the ultimate downfall of e-cigs, that same study does indicate that e-cigs are likely less dangerous than analog cigarettes. if the inflammatory response is dependent on the nicotine content of the gas/aerosol in question, it stands to reason that e-cigs pose less of a threat than cigarettes. The only way to turn this study against e-cigs is by strawmanning.
Already, the juxtaposition of the article title and the quote I pulled from it is quite striking. Somehow, the fact that e-cigs are not totally without risk is supposed to prove that e-cigs are probably not “the safer alternative.” How does that even follow? Well, it doesn’t really. Mostly, that follows if you forget that what you’re trying to argue against here is not that e-cigs are better than cigarettes, but that they’re better than breathing in super-fresh Rockies air. But that’s how strawmanning works. Attack a fictitious argument and hope your reader forgets that no one has even ever made the argument you’re talking about.
This, of course, is not the only tactic I’ve seen in media coverage of the vaping boom. Strawmanning is only one among many other disingenuous tactics. Slippery slope, shifting goalposts, and “think of the children” are some of the other tactics that come to mind. Either way, these people need to be called out.