Vaping Has Its Wakefield Moment

  • by: Robert Goldberg |
  • 03/12/2020
Last July, the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA) published an article that claimed vaping doubled the risk of heart attacks.  The research, conducted by Stanton Glantz, director of the University of California, San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education was unveiled right in the middle of a wave of articles, hearings and statements by public health officials asserting e-cigarettes were dangerous.  

The Glantz article fueled fear that vaping was deadly just as Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet study linking autism to the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine triggered anti-vaccine panic that in turn led to a decline immunization rates.  We now face the possibility of millions rejecting flu shots or a coronavirus vaccine because of the fears sowed by Wakefield. 

There’s something else both articles have in common.  They were both retracted by the journals that published them. The Lancet retracted the Wakefield paper in 2010 for being untrustworthy and fraudulent.  The Glantz article was yanked for similar reasons.

However, there is a big difference.  Wakefield was swiftly condemned after the retraction by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today these same agencies are funding Glantz and relying upon his publications to shape public perceptions and regulation of e-cigarettes. In fact, Glantz  has received nearly $50 million from the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute of Health to “inform the FDA’s regulation of the manufacture, distribution, and marketing of tobacco products to protect public health.”   

The JAHA article claimed that independent of other factors, e-cigarettes were as likely to increase the risk of heart attacks as smoking. When other public health researchers, including Dr. Brad Rodu, who chairs the Center for Tobacco Harm Reduction Research at University of Louisville analyzed the data Glantz used they found the majority of patients in the study who had heart attacks had them before they started vaping — by an average of 10 years earlier. 

In fact, one JAHA reviewer raised this issue with Glantz and asked him to redo the analysis by excluding people who had previously smoked or had a heart attack.  Glantz failed to do this simple calculation. Instead, he told JAHA editors that he controlled for previous heart attacks by analyzing only those people who had one five or fewer years ago. JAHA published the study and to its credit, pulled the paper after Rodu and other researchers continued to press the issue. 

This was not the first time Glantz used statistical gerrymandering to produce misleading results that aligned with aggressive anti-vaping forces.  In 2018 he published another study about e-cigarettes causing heart attacks in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM) that has not been retracted.  Nor was it the last. In December of 2019  AJPM published a Glantz study that was hailed as the first study on the long-term health effects of electronic cigarettes finds that the devices are linked to an increased risk of chronic lung diseases

Indeed, Glantz doubled down on the link, telling the New York Post: "Everybody, including me, used to think e-cigarettes are like cigarettes but not as bad. …It turns out you're worse off. E-cigarettes pose unique risks in terms of lung disease." 

To reach this conclusion, Glantz again counted people who smoked as e-cigarette users.  Also, he didn’t control for the fact adults with asthma are 11 times more likely to develop other types of COPD (independent of smoking).   

Moreover, Glantz said it only took 3 years for e-cigarettes to trigger lung disease. That’s a remarkable finding for two reasons. First, it takes at least a decade or longer of consistent smoking for COPD to develop. Second, most clinical trials show that biomarkers of tobacco use associated with lung and heart disease decline when people switch to e-cigarettes.

The Glantz retraction raises questions not just about his other research, but the use of his research methods to influence public opinion and regulation of e-cigarettes.  As Aaron Wildavsky wrote, “when noble lies" are told in the belief that the system is so bad that any argument against it can only counteract a small part of its falsehoods, the task of the citizen is made much more difficult.”  In this case, it is now harder to determine whether restricting or eliminating e-cigarettes – which means leaving combustible tobacco products on sale, increase or reduce the 500,000 deaths a year attributed to smoking?  

After Wakefield’s fraud was exposed, the British Medical Journal wrote that “the damage to public health continues, fueled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals and the medical profession.”  Today, Glantz is still being published by mainstream medical journals, championed by major media outlets, given legitimacy by other scientists and politicians. Can we even imagine having the response to the coronavirus based on such fraudulent research?

The JAHA retraction was a Wakefield moment. Jacob Bronowski, the great science historian and mathematician observed that “no science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power.”  The way to prevent such distortion is more people engaging in better science.  But when government funding supports one point of view, then it becomes easy to overrun scientific discourse, bully those with different points of view and control public policy.  The JAHA retraction can be a step back from that abyss. 


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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