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Scientists Are Working Overtime to Debunk the Vaping Scare

Portland State University chemistry professor David Peyton had never been attacked with such intensity.

Peyton and a group of other chemists discovered almost five years ago that e-cigarettes could sometimes produce more cancer-causing formaldehyde than regular cigarettes. Formaldehyde is produced by a chemical reaction when a regular cigarette is lit, and finding it at such high levels in e-cigarette vapor, which has been held out as a safer smoking alternative, was a surprise. The study made headlines when the New England Journal of Medicine published it in January 2015.

But along with the publicity came a swift backlash.

The first wave emanated from critics online. The day the study was published, a pro-vaping activist posted an open letter to Peyton online, questioning it. Bloggers flamed it as “bogus” and “invalid.” The inboxes of Peyton and his colleagues were inundated with name-calling emails.

Three months later, the activist, a British anti-tobacco advocate and consultant named Clive Bates, and a little-known Greek cardiologist named Konstantinos Farsalinos called the study “highly inaccurate and misleading” in a 14-page complaint to the journal’s editors, seeking its retraction. About 40 researchers and vaping-advocates signed a petition backing the complaint; some of them, or their organizations, have received funding that originated from tobacco or vaping companies or vaping advocacy organizations.

The New England Journal of Medicine says it rarely receives third-party petitions for retractions. The journal published a critical letter from Farsalinos and two other researchers, but didn’t retract the study.

Vaping proponents “really wanted to kill it,” said Peyton. “We had published in this very prestigious journal and used the word cancer and put some numbers to it, and they didn’t like that.”

The stakes are rising quickly in the debate over the safety of vaping. Officials are trying to understand an epidemic of acute vaping-related lung injuries that has hurt 1,888 people and killed 37 as of Oct. 29, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most cases involved vaping THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. A surge in teen vaping has alarmed parents, strained schools and rattled regulators.

Even before all that, the clash over vaping’s long-term effects had become a brawl.

Farsalinos, a 44-year-old doctor affiliated with the University of Patras and the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center, has emerged as a general in the vaping war. A former smoker who switched to electronic cigarettes, he’s made a mission of rebutting what he sees as flawed research, publishing more than 70 studies and letters on e-cigarettes and tobacco harm reduction.

“I am not aware of any other scientist in the world who has more publications than me concerning e-cigarettes,” he said.

Farsalinos travels the global scientific-conference circuit talking up the public-health benefits of vaping. He has a website at, where he rails against studies and media reports casting vaping in a bad light.

In a recent blog post, Farsalinos called the U.S. reaction to the lung-injury outbreak “emotional and irrational hysteria.” In another, he complained of a “witch hunt against e-cigarettes” and criticized a Bloomberg article on early signs of vaping-related lung injuries as “a collection of confusing and irrelevant information.”

“There is no doubt that e-cigarettes are far less harmful than smoking, absolutely no doubt,” Farsalinos said in a phone interview. The concerns over e-cigarettes are exaggerated, he said, and “for a smoker who has failed to quit by other methods, they can be literally life-saving.” He recommends vaping only for people who can’t quit through other cessation tactics.

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