I will admit to occasionally defending the Washington Post in front of its detractors, even as much of what is written there is as egregious as stuff one might hear on Fox News or MSNBC; I’m usually an equal opportunity hater of all major media outlets, but still have a soft spot for good, old-school journalism. However, the latest WaPo article on e-cigarettes, written by Stephen C. Weiss, is an absolute journalistic atrocity, as he manages to cite countless disproved conjectures as fact, and adds another source of moralistic panic for the public to draw on in their instinctive opposition to vaping.
The trainwreck begins with the title of the article, which urges us to “Ban e-cigarettes for kids.” It isn’t until the second to last sentence of the article that we find out that Maryland, the state he is addressing in the title, has already prohibited e-cigarette sales to children (if by children we mean minors). What the author means by the title, it turns out, is that he wishes there were laws in place ”prohibiting minors from using e-cigarettes and banning the products in all places where the county forbids tobacco use.” Is this an example of deliberate misrepresentation, or just of shoddy writing? I’ll leave that to you to decide.
The shoddiness, however, does not end there. As he progresses through the article, Weiss states that there is “plenty of evidence” proving e-cigarettes to be a serious health risk. The article he cites as one such piece of evidence is, of course, the infamous “Hidden Formaldehyde” study. At this point, I would have thought that this study has been so widely disseminated and debunked in the media that even my mother would probably be able to tell me that e-cigarettes only produce formaldehyde when heated to the point of combustion of the wick. Weiss, of course, takes no note of the widely publicized shortcomings of that study or the researchers’ own statements on its significance, nor does he cite further studies to prove his point. I suppose we’re supposed to trust him on authority alone.
He then goes on to claim that the use of bright colors and sweet, dessert-like flavors is part of a deliberate concerted effort to market e-cigarettes to children (by which I assume he means teenagers), which, in addition to having been entirely debunked by real research, is plainly laughable. Whenever I see such a claim, I wonder whether the people spouting off this nonsense have ever made an effort to observe teenagers. Had they done so, surely they would have noticed that teenagers usually trend away from things that might be considered childish in any way, and they certainly are not big consumers of brightly colored objects. If that were the case, Hot Topic would not be in business. Weiss follows up this discussion with a discussion of the number of adolescents who have tried e-cigarettes without providing a discussion of any context for the number he cites, and a similarly superficial discussion of TV advertisements for e-cigarettes. All of it, of course, interpreted through the lens of a man who is clearly panicked by the prospect of having to watch people vape, and is using the classic “Think of the children!” tactic to stir up public sentiment.
The main reason I wanted to bring this article to your attention is because it is so egregious in its accumulation of oft-cited and thoroughly debunked objections to vaping, yet it was still published in one of the most reputable newspapers in the US. I don’t doubt that Stephen C. Weiss is an able writer and researcher, and it is precisely because of his objective ability that I find this article a little disturbing. To me, it proves that baseless propaganda in the media has managed to infiltrate even the minds of those who pride themselves on their power to observe things objectively.