Avoiding Unethical, Predatory Anti-vaping Research

Avoiding Unethical, Predatory Anti-vaping Research

This is a post that was extracted from a Facebook post by Amelia Howard that we think will be valuable to our readers.


Courtesy of Amelia Howard but modified formatting from the original

As a member of the university research community, as well as a strong believer in the value of independent scientific work, and the university as the institution that is uniquely suited to high quality knowledge production, this is a very difficult post to write.

However, observations and information gathered through my own research about how regulatory science is being conducted on vaping in the United States specifically, and in much of the global tobacco control field which is highly influenced by American work have left me with what I feel is an ethical obligation to warn anyone and everyone solicited for a vaping study to be very careful before agreeing- and to NEVER share advertisements recruiting for vaping studies unless you know a great deal about the study itself and the group conducting it.

There is an enormous amount of predatory and unethical research being conducted in this space. Studies are being used as political tools to justify prohibition on vaping in America. The problem is not necessarily with individual researchers themselves. It is produced by a system that is set up to only fund studies that focus on dangers rather than benefits.

It is important to be aware that even the most rigorous laboratory science can be shaped for political purposes through mechanisms like framing the problem in a certain way, amplifying half of the findings in the press, inappropriate interpretation of data, inappropriately generalizing harms found in single cellular or animal studies as immediately meaning similar harms for people, or in the context of harm reduction, failure to compare to the harmful case.

NEVER assume from an advertisement, study description, proposal, informed consent letter, or study website alone that the study will not be harmful to you or to vaping. NEVER assume that your involvement in a study will help change a researchers perspective on vaping. NEVER assume that because a researcher is polite, or tells you they are unbiased that the study will be well conducted. The bias here is not individual but BUILT INTO THE FIELD DOING THE MAJORITY OF RESEARCH ON THIS PROBLEM.

Until there are major reforms to tobacco regulatory science your default position when you are approached or see an ad for research participation should be skepticism. I don’t say that lightly, but it needs to be said in this case.

I know vapers want good research. I know vapers want to know what the real potential harms are so that devices can be improved, I know vapers want honest research on harm reduction, and I know vapers want their knowledge and experience to be reflected in the science. All of this is possible, but it is not a matter of you convincing a single researcher. Vapers need to understand that tobacco control researchers in America are not bad people, but they are operating in a system that is in conflict with harm reduction and full of propaganda, and they pose a potential threat to the future of vaping just by doing their jobs. Again. This is because of the SYSTEM and not because these are bad people.

Here are initial things to consider for any study. I will be preparing a more comprehensive list but I wanted to get some guidance out there now:

  • Is the information about the study comprehensive, clear, and written in plain language that you can easily understand?
  • Is the research team listed?
  • Do they solicit informed consent BEFORE collecting data on you?
  • Do they give you the name of a third party in an IRB that you can contact if you have questions about your risks or concerns about the study that you are not comfortable raising with the research group?
  • Are funding sources clearly stated?
Note that all of the above are normal requirements for soliciting research participation. If any of this information is left out, this is unusual, and a red flag.

More things to look for:

  • If the research is medical scientific: do the researchers intend to compare whatever they are measuring with vaping to smoking? (If the do not – and the research problem is to look at potential risks – then DO NOT participate in this study if you value vaping as harm reduction).
  • Be cautious of any study funded by the National Cancer Institute or FDA Center for Tobacco Products as the granting system privileges research focusing on harms without considering benifits.


  • Do your research on the scientists themselves, especially the Principle Investigator (PI). Google their name with e-cigarettes and vaping. Read any op-eds or commentary, interviews to get a sense of their political stance on harm reduction. If they are cited in alarmist pieces making alarmist statements – do not – DO NOT assume that your participation in their study will change their mind. Read their research. Do not try to pick apart their methodology or interpret highly technical data analysis – but do look at how they frame their studies in the introduction, conclusion, regulatory recommendations.
  • For example: if a study is on the effect of vaporized nicotine on mouth cells, and it’s premised with a bunch of statements on vaping as a gateway to smoking, candy flavours attracting teens, the FDA not regulating the devices, battery explosions, and other political talking points, this is a clear sign of politically motivated science, and you should assume those motivations are there in whatever study they are conducting now.
  • Do not assume that because you know vaping works and reduces harm based on your own experience, as well as decades of research showing that nicotine on it’s own is relatively low risk, that anyone doing a study will “discover” this. If someone says they want to evaluate if vaping is harmful, they need to be considering harms relative to smoke, and also need to state what their study will actually add given that the (marginal) risks of nicotine are well established, and apply to vaping.
  • If you do not have time to consider all of the above carefully before participating in research, don’t participate. You will not save vaping by doing a study, even a good one. And you won’t change the mind of a researcher with a smile waving a fit bit and $50.00 in front of you to get you in the lab if they are a zealot. Effecting meaningful and systemic change in vaping research is possible. The bad studies can be stopped before they’re even conducted, if every vaper and vaping business would refused to participate in research unless harm reduction principles were core to the study, the researchers understood the technology issues of real world use.
  • You have no obligation to the research community as a citizen or a vaper to participate in any studies. Moreover, you have leverage as a vaper with the research community. Researchers need people for their studies, but you are under no obligation to participate – especially in work that can be used to promote regulations that put you or your business or both at risk. Vaping was made by users, vaping BELONGS to users, and the user community must call for research that benefits current and future vapers, and respects the harm reduction context of these technologies. This is your solution to smoking. Demand better studies on it. This is your right.

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