Lazy, stupid, inaccurate – the Mail on Sunday on e-cigarettes

Victory! 19 April 2013… Press Complaints Commission notice issued. News! 19 March 2013… Marie Claire agrees to publish response from me […]

Victory! 19 April 2013… Press Complaints Commission notice issued.
News! 19 March 2013… Marie Claire agrees to publish response from me (to come).
3 March 2013… Correction issued by Mail on Sunday see here

Initial post: 27 January 2013

A particularly shoddy and irritating story in today’s Mail on Sunday. It is so bad that I was moved to complain to the Press Complaints Commission via the PCC online complaint facility.

The article: E-cigarette ‘can cause more harm than smoking’, experts say  is just total rubbish and completely irresponsible.  There is no kinder way to put it.  The PCC’s Editors’ Code of Practice requires:

1.Accuracy: i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

The story is online and at p25 in the Mail on Sunday Review ‘Health’ section.   There are many excellent and devastating comments on the online version.  My complaint and comment are below.  I’ll let you know how the PCC responds.

Complaint regarding Mail on Sunday article 27 January 2013: E-cigarettes ‘can cause more harm than smoking’, experts say

1. The headline and premise of the story is completely inaccurate – there are no circumstances in which e-cigarettes cause more harm than smoking. In reality they are almost harmless – probably at least 99% less risky than cigarette smoking. No expert would say this and none has.

2. There is no fact or argument in the article to support the headline or its main premise. This is simply asserted by the by the journalist in the first sentence of the article, and in the headline. The fact that e-cigarettes ‘can cause acute respiratory system irritation’ in some users is barely relevant. An ‘irritation’ is a minor issue compared to cancer, heart disease and emphysema caused by smoking. It is these chronic conditions that do the most harm. Most e-cigarette users don’t experience this irritation and no figures are given on how many people are afflicted by this irritation or how severely. So even the one health impact that is mentioned is asserted without any quantification or sense of its seriousness. It certainly is not described in a way that justifies the headline or premise of the article. Inflammation and irritation of the respiratory tract is common in smokers (smokers’ cough) – as well as cancer, heart disease etc.

3. No experts are quoted in the article saying e-cigarettes ‘can cause more harm than smoking’ – yet this quote is used in the headline and is unattributed. No experts have said this because it is not true. The article doesn’t even support its own (false) premise.

4. There is implicit misleading scaremongering about ‘the chemical propylene glycol’ (why mention it otherwise?). In reality this is a largely benign substance used as a food additive and in medicines.

A grossly inaccurate story like this could have real impacts on human welfare if it discourages people from switching from smoking cigarettes to e-cigarettes. It is also unfairly damaging to numerous small businesses trying to grow the market for a much safer alternative to smoking. This is particularly irresponsible, ill-informed, and lazy journalism.

I also left a comment on the Mail web site below the article:

Unbelievably ridiculous and irresponsible article. E-cigarettes are at least 99% safer than cigarettes. People smoke mostly for the nicotine, which is a widely used recreational drug usually taken by smoking tobacco. But it is not nicotine that does the damage in smoking, it is particles of burnt tobacco (tar) and hot gases that cause the cancer, emphysema and heart disease. E-cigarettes have none of these hazardous emissions . Articles like this are real-world dangerous, because they may discourage people from making a potentially life-saving switch from cigs to e-cigs. Clive Bates, former Director Action on Smoking & Health (1997-2003)

Clive_Bates , London, 27/1/2013 07:45

Update 1st February: The Mail has taken down the online version of the offending article. However a deletion is not the same as a retraction or correction. Also, the excellent comments that were posted with the article are now lost. I have written back to the PPC, as follows:

Dear ____

I notice that the Mail online has now taken down the article in question and replaced it with a ‘page not found’ message.  I don’t know what forms of correction the PCC advise when the accuracy provisions of the Editors’ Code are broken.  In my opinion the breach was particularly egregious in this instance, and it is not sufficient simply to delete the page.  I hope you will ask the Mail to publish a retraction and correction at the same web address. Something like:
“The article you are trying to access “E-cigarettes ‘can cause more harm than smoking’, experts say” was found to be inaccurate and misleading and has been withdrawn.  We accept that experts do not say that e-cigarettes “can cause more harm than smoking” and that the expert consensus is that they are likely to be very much less harmful”.
This would set the record straight. I also think those reading this should be able to read the original and the comments that followed.
I realise that you have a process and that has probably not yet run its course, but I thought I should signal now that I think a deletion does not amount to a proper retraction and correction.  Similar arguments apply to the printed paper, though of course deletion is not possible.
Clive Bates

Also, it is worth remembering the context: in the light of Leveson, newspapers are trying to show some discipline and that self-regulation works.

I remind people that accuracy is the cornerstone of the existing PCC

So says Paul Dacre, Editor-in-Chief of  Associated Newspapers (Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday etc) in evidence to Parliament Joint Committee on the Defamation Bill 18 July 2011 (See Q789)

Update 3rd February: Marie Claire has rehashed this story (strangely without attribution): Fears e-cigarettes could be more harmful than smoking.   It is slightly different, but it is no less lazy, stupid and wrong the the original. I’ve asked the PCC to consider this article too.


The Mail on Sunday article that is the subject of my complaint (130587) has been rehashed and published on-line by Marie Claire. It is not quite the same and there is no attribution of the original, but the same substantive criticisms apply. There is no basis for the headline and top line of the story, no experts have said anything to this effect, the expert and common sense consensus is that these products are very much less hazardous than smoking, and the article’s description of risk is prone to exaggeration and scaremongering. I would be grateful if you could add this article to the original complaint, assuming Marie Claire falls within the remit of the PCC.
Clive Bates

Update 4th February: Marie Claire has now taken down the offending article. This is what it previously said.

Update 3rd March – Mail on Sunday issues a correction – though not on line


Update 6th March 2013: PCC asks for correspondence from the Mail on Sunday to be withdrawn from publication on this web site.  The PCC reminds me that its process is confidential, and that it had pointed this out from the outset.

Confidentiality: The system of self-regulation overseen by the PCC requires good faith on both sides. In order for the PCC to be able to investigate complaints effectively, it is essential that neither party to a complaint, complainant or publication, publishes information which has been provided as part of the investigation – most notably correspondence – without the consent of the other party. Publication without consent may affect the PCC’s ability to continue to deal with a complaint or may be considered by the PCC when it reaches a decision as to whether the Code has been breached. Material provided by both complainants and publications during a PCC investigation must only be used for the purpose of the investigation. This will not generally prohibit a publication from publishing details of any ruling made by the Commission.

I apologise and admit I had missed this and had assumed the process would be transparent. Note amendments above.

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46 thoughts on “Lazy, stupid, inaccurate – the Mail on Sunday on e-cigarettes”

    1. On the contrary, I think she is a great journalist. Her work is entertaining, informative and she writes excellent human interest stories.

      1. Roger, thanks for the comment – I agree with you. Her portfolio is full of pretty good, popular and amusing stuff that sells well. I can only assume this was an off-day or rush job. I wouldn’t judge anyone’s journalistic credentials on the back of a single article.

  1. Thank you for addressing this, Clive.

    The Mail is so consistent with this anti-THR propaganda that I am led to the suspicion that they have a commercial agenda here: perhaps the value of their pharmaceutical industry advertising revenue is sufficient that they are prepared to publish lies in order to satisfy their advertisers.

    This seems to me to be sufficient reason to add another point to a complaint to the PCC: is it acceptable for a media channel to act in a way that will lead to widescale loss of life in order to placate and please a particular group of advertisers? If the answer is yes, then it shows the PCC is a useless and toothless waste of space; something that perhaps has been suggested already.

    1. Chris – we don’t yet know what the (much derided) PCC will make of this. They’ll probably suggest I write a letter to the editor. But I think this is up to the MoS to deal with. I’ve no evidence they’ve been influenced by pharma ad revenues… most organisations are too badly organised to be that devious.

  2. This particular line doesn’t even make sense “Bad breath: Chemical propylene glycol accounts for up to 90 per cent of the e-cigarette content and can cause ‘acute respiratory system irritation'”
    Its written under the picture of the ecig – I’m thinking they were going to try and claim ecigs causes bad breath and then figured they wouldn’t bother to attempt to justify it but left the start of that sentence, now they maybe are hoping people will think propylene glycol has something to do with bad breath? How about cigarettes causes bad breath due to the smoke and not ecigs due to the fact its vapour, you wouldn’t even need a science experiment to test this out.

    Another interesting point is they wrote “In 2009, the US Food and Drug Administration analysed e-cigarette cartridges and found traces of the carcinogen nitrosamine and other potentially harmful substances in products from several manufacturers, in addition to ethanol and glycerin”

    I would like to point out that the approved NRT treatment Nicorette Quitmist contains “1mg of Nicotine, Propylene Glycol, Anhydrous Ethanol, Trometamol, Poloxamer 407, Glycerol, Sodium Hydrogen Carbonate, Levomenthol, Mint Flavour, Cooling Flavour, Sucralose, Acesulfame Potassium, Hydrochloric Acid, Purified Water. ”
    As stated on the ingredients list. Now the testing they did on some cartridges back in 2009 of e cigarettes were on a very limited quantity, the quantities of the “harmful ingredient” that the study found was quoted as millions of times the amount actually found according to a NY Times article published afterwards. This ingredient hasn’t been found in many tests since etc.

    Great reply to the PCC Clive btw!

  3. Very good work Clive, just doing a cursory Google search for Daily Mail e-cigarette related articles shows a very odd dislike for them in pretty much every single article they have done on e-cigs.

    I look forward to any developments on this with interest.

  4. It is also worth pointing out that ‘approved’ and ‘safe’ nicotine products, such as Nicorette Quickmist also contain Propylene Glycol and has “may cause throat irritation” as one of the listed possible side effects.

  5. Ah! The good old “Daily Mail”! Renowned for never letting the facts get in the way of a good story!

    1. Seriously… this begs the question: ‘what should they do now?’. I don’t think mere removal is adequate – it just surreptitiously disappears and the damage is left behind. It needs a retraction and correction – a proper acknowledgement that the article was misleading and inaccurate at the same URL as the article occupies now. Obviously they can’t remove it from the printed paper now, so some sort of correction is necessary in print.

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  9. The use of Inflammatory terms such as “Nicotine-Laced” and “Acute Respiratory irritation” should be accurately re-written as part of that retraction.

    1. Thanks for spotting that Rachael. It is an interesting question: how should they put right something as blatantly wrong as this?

      I would rather see the link replaced by an acknowledgement that they got it wrong – with a little supporting humility. It isn’t good enough just to leave a broken link where the article once was, they need to set the record straight for their readers – online and in print.


  10. It’s not the first time this has happened either, they recently did an article claiming that leaked emails had shown that the White House had green lighted a chemical weapons attack in Syria that could be blamed on the Assad regime in order for the US to attack.

    Although in that case I would take a guess that the article might well have been pulled for being true.

    Anyway back on topic as for the e-cig article there needs to be some recourse or they can just publish what the hell they like (some might say they already do lol) and then simply delete it, it’s disgraceful.

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  13. Here is the response from the organisation quoted. The attachment is here

    unfortunately it is in German.

    “Dear Mr. Alpert,

    Thank you very much for your query. I would like to inform you that there must be a misunderstanding/misquoting. Please find attached the original press release from 19 December 2011, which is only available in German language.”

    With kind regards,
    Helene Reemann
    Referatsleiterin/Head of unit
    Internationale Beziehungen
    International Relations
    Email: [email protected]

    Die Bundeszentrale für gesundheitliche Aufklärung (BZgA) ist eine Fachbehörde im Geschäftsbereich des Bundesministeriums für Gesundheit

    The Federal Centre for Health Education (BZgA) is a specialist authority within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Health

    Anthony Alpert
    27.01.2013 14:50

    [email protected]

    Claims Dr Elisabeth Pott, director of the Federal Centre of Health
    Education in Cologne by Daily Mail newspaper in the UK

    Dear Helene

    I just read an article and thought it made some quite strange claims.

    The article seems to imply that Dr Elisabeth Pott from your organisation
    considers smoking cigarettes to be less harmful than electronic
    cigarettes. It is quite a strange claim for anyone from a scientific or
    medical background to make so I thought I would alert your organisation in
    case you have been misquoted. Many of the comments and readers of the
    article seem to state its impossible for electronic cigarette vapour to be
    more harmful than smoke fumes. I realise newspapers do try to invent
    controversial headlines in order to sell content but it may not leave the
    best impression of your organisation. I thought you may be interested.

    The article is here

    Kind Regards


  14. Roughly translated by google translate the quoted press release states

    Press release
    19th December 2011
    Health risks of e-cigarettes should not be underestimated
    Federal Centre for Health Education does not recommend the use
    Given the increasing popularity of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) warns
    Director of the Federal Centre for Health Education (BZgA) Prof. Dr. Elisabeth Pott:
    “The use of e-cigarettes is associated with health risks, because the used
    Cartridges often contain besides the narcotic drug nicotine and other harmful
    Substances. Why is discouraged from consuming the e-cigarette. ”
    The inhaled via e-cigarette vapor is up to 90 percent of propylene glycol, the
    can cause short-term acute respiratory irritation. Hitherto completely unknown to the
    health effects after long-term and repeated inhalation of propylene glycol.
    Besides well-known substances such as ethanol, glycerin and flavorings, the American
    Control Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in some cartridges toxic substances such as
    Can prove carcinogenic nitrosamines.
    E-cigarettes consist of a housing, a battery, an electrical and a nebuliser
    replaceable cartridge that is filled with fluid (liquid). By drawing on the mouthpiece
    the liquid is vaporized and inhaled. Due to the previously inadequate declaration
    Ingredients in the fluids are consumers about potential health risks
    Left unclear. Also, the vapor over the use of e-cigarettes in the room air
    passes, has not been scientifically tested to its harmlessness.
    Even for a stop smoking the e-cigarette is not suitable. “Anyone who thinks that he and the E-
    Cigarette may facilitate smoking cessation wrong, “says Prof. Dr. Pott. “For a period of
    successful smoking cessation behavioral change is necessary, associated with the use of e-
    Cigarettes is not reached. ”
    Helpful information and best offers to quit smoking has under the BZgA
    Federal Agency


    1. “Helpful information and best offers to quit smoking has under the BZgA”

      The “best offers to quit” from the BZgA are:

      – Nicotinegum,
      – Nicotinepatches and
      – Chantix.

      The “best offers”, indeed!

  15. I think that it would be useful for if the PCC contact to contact BZgA directly for a more formal response.

  16. Thomas Ericsson

    Dear all, I am pharmacist and have been responsible for development of Nicorette. The similarities between Nicorette and oral tobacco products are many, the differences few,

    E-cigarettes are 100 % risk free but very low risks compared to smoking items. E-cigaretts shall be compared with Nicorette Inhaler. Rather risk free, low nicotine delivery, variable delivery due to surraonding temperture.

    Nicotine gives contraction of blood vessels and is local irritation, the level of nicotine is low compared to cigarettes.

    The only concern is the particles generated by propylene glycol.

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  24. It is very difficult to understand what is going on with newspapers and The Tobacco Control Industry these days. They used to stick to the tried and trusted propaganda of SHS danger. Now they seem to be going way out of their depth, publishing unresearched opinions emphasising potential risks of risks as if these risks of risks have substance NOW.
    It seems to me to be perfectly clear that The Tobacco Control Industry has lost the plot and is in a serious panic. Why else would the Zealots in the WHO issue advice to people not to try to stop smoking by using e-cigarettes when it is known beyond doubt that e-cigarette liquid contains NONE of the potentially dangerous substances of tobacco (or, at most, minute and harmless amounts, similar to patches and gum)? I think that the problem is that the WHO is rudderless. No one is in control so that any group of Zealots there can say anything they like. And they are panicking like mad. Think about it. As a result of the ecig revolution, the Framework Convention of Tobacco Control is falling apart, since ecigs contain no tobacco. That may be the reason for the subtle movement from tobacco to nicotine. “But there is no “Framework Convention on Nicotine Control”! Answer? Delay! Delay! Delay!
    The Tobacco Control Industry in the EU is in a similar mess. Their legs are being cut from beneath them by ecigs. How else can they respond except, in the first instance, to try to get ecigs ‘de facto’ banned, and, failing that, to get them severely curtailed and slowed down?
    I think that the plethora of anti-ecig un-science is aimed at legislators, and only legislators.
    It is to be hoped that the EU Parliament sticks to its guns and JUST SAYS “NO!”

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