6 Problems with the CDC Teen eCig Announcement

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve likely heard that the CDC, the agency we trust to keep us safe from monkey pox outbreaks, has released a “shocking study” about youth e-cigarette use. This has all the makings of a full-on freak out, teen and even middle school use has doubled between 2011-2012. Of course with all things, there is more than meets the eye. Here are 6 problems with the CDC teen e-cigarette report (both with the study and external to it) to think about.

1. It’s another 2009 FDA “Study”

FDA LogoIf you’ve been around long enough, or have been subjected to particularly bad news reporting, you know the FDA put out its own study of e-cigarettes back in the dark ages of e-cigarettes.  You likely also know the study is complete crap where the announcement didn’t actually match the science. (Need to get caught up on the FDA? Check out my FDA history article)

Essentially, that’s the same thing here. What came out in the press release is far more alarmist than what the numbers belie. Also, like the study before it, the CDC’s contribution has some fundamental issues with its methodology.

In other words, kids are the new antifreeze.

2. Important Parts Omitted

The CDC study. Actually, scratch that. It was a survey, let’s call it that. After all prohibitionists don’t count the zillions of surveys about e-cigarette use as studies.

business dataThe CDC survey consisted of two key metrics. The first was whether students ever used e-cigarettes. The second was if any of the respondents had used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days. The 30 day group was considered to be “active” users.

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That’s right, even if someone tried an e-cigarette and thought they were idiotic, but did it 28 days ago, they were put down as a dedicated vaper.

Even more troubling was that they either didn’t bother asking, or didn’t publish a third category that is common in these types of surveys. That is daily use.  There’s no mention of how many of these kids actually used the devices on a regular basis. That’s the real number we’re after, that’s the one that tells us for real how many kids actually we should be concerned about.

The first two numbers just show experimentation. High school kids kind of do that on a regular basis. I remember the days of thinking I was immortal and trying anything at least once. And no, I’m not going to share my misadventures, although I didn’t take up smoking until well after high school.

One number that didn’t make the fire and brimstone press release, but did show up in the report was current smokers. 80% of the e-cigarette users were already smokers. I guess kids trying to give up the smokes isn’t sexy enough to mention.

3. Fuzzy Math

As you might imagine, many harm reduction advocates combed over this survey report to find a number of creative liberties taken with the math used to come up with the statistics. Carl Phillips pointed out on the Anti THR Lies blog the survey stacks the deck. Specifically, the numbers in the “ever use” category skew high. The reason is that the many same students from the 2011 survey are still in the 2012 pool.

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math+girl12See the word “ever” means well, ever. Therefore anyone who tried an e-cigarette in 2011 but didn’t touch one since is still counted as someone who has ever used an e-cigarette, even though he or she is clearly not interested in the devices. Since high school is a 4 year thing, that means 3/4 of the students fall into that pile. The used in last 30 days number is more accurate in that respect, but guess which number got all the headlines?

Speaking of headlines, to mix things up some news agencies went with the figure of 1.8 million kids used e-cigarettes. This number was extrapolated based on the number of survey responses and the number of kids that exist. It’s hard to tell how accurate that number is because we don’t know the sample size of the survey.

The thing in statistics is that the smaller the sample size compared to the actual population you’re studying, the less accurate the results will be come.  Also, from what I can tell there were about 2.5 million e-cigarette users in the US in 2012. It seems unlikely over half of them were punk kids.

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Steve K

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