After months of pressure from the scientific community, the American Heart Association's academic journal on Tuesday evening retracted a widely circulated vaping study, which claimed that using e-cigarettes increased the likelihood of having a heart attack.
Last June, the authors, Stanton Glantz and Dharma Bhatta of the University of California San Francisco, stated in the original study that vaping and smoking cigarettes posed a similar risk, while doing both at the same time was an even more dangerous option. Following its publication in the summer, the peer-reviewed research was referenced by major news organizations, including CNN, Yahoo News, and USA Today.
In a statement explaining the retraction, editors at the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA) expressed worry that the study may have been based on misleading data.
"The editors are concerned that the study conclusion is unreliable," they wrote.
JAHA pulled the paper after Brad Rodu, a tobacco control expert at the University of Louisville, noted that many of the vapers Glantz and Bhatta analyzed for the study were also current or former smokers. Rodu argued that there was a possibility that the use of combustible cigarettes is what made them more likely to suffer heart attacks.
"A retraction is not a trivial matter," Rodu told VICE on Wednesday. "It's a significant action. Saying it was a mistake is too weak."
Last month, several scholars at public-health schools including New York University, Yale, and King's College London sent a letter to JAHA bringing attention to Rodu's criticisms and asking for an appropriate investigation.
David Sweanor, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa who has studied the global tobacco industry for decades, was among those who signed the letter.
"There are serious problems with the peer-review process and the reluctance of journals to retract invalid work," Sweanor said. "This has helped feed the reduction in trust in academia, and science in general."
In their statement explaining the retraction, the journal's editors said someone else had raised the same issue during the peer-review process. While the research had been published anyway, the journal gave Glantz and Bhatta a deadline to revise the findings, which they didn't meet. Explaining why, Glantz said that his access to the dataset he used for the research had been revoked, because he did not have approval to use it to begin with.
On Twitter and his blog, Glantz stood by the paper, saying that JAHA had simply relented to "pressure from e-cig interests."
In recent months, Glantz and Rodu have traded criticisms of one another. Glantz has frequently noted the fact Rodu receives some financial support from the tobacco industry. Rodu and other harm-reduction proponents have often railed against Glantz for his scientific methods and his views on tobacco control. Rodu originally voiced this criticism of Glantz in early July 2019, right after the study's publication.
JAHA's decision might turn out to be a small win for academics and advocates who are pushing vaping has a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes, but the paper's conclusions have already fed what critics have argued is a moral panic over e-cigarettes. Its publication came amid rising concern over teenage e-cigarette and fueled a continuing misconception over the lifesaving potential of switching from cigarettes to vaping.
"To me, this story simply confirms what I have been arguing for a long time: that there is a profound anti-e-cigarette bias among tobacco-control researchers, and this is precisely what caused this fiasco," said Michael Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University.
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