Researchers Call for Strong Warning Labels on E-Cigs

E-cigarette warning labelRecently a study was conducted in the University of California at San Francisco (USCF) in which researchers exposed participants to various types of warning labels to determine what effect each label might have on the subject’s likelihood to purchase low-risk tobacco products in the future.

They found that warning labels which imply a high level of risk often deterred participants from wanting to purchase these products (surprise!).

The researchers concluded that stronger warning labels are necessary for reducing tobacco use in the population, and urged the FDA to implement strict warnings on e-cigarettes and tobacco products to discourage their use.

The Study

In this study, 483 adults who do not use any kind of tobacco or vape were asked whether they had any interest in trying tobacco products in the future (note that the researchers include e-cigarettes as a ‘tobacco product’).  They were then randomly sorted into six groups.  Each group was exposed to an advertisement for moist snuff, snus, or an e-cigarette, with the following warnings:

  • Group 1 – ‘WARNING: This product is not a safe alternative to cigarettes.’
  • Group 2 – A graphic picture of a mouth tumor, along with ‘WARNING: This product can cause mouth cancer.’
  • Group 3 – ‘WARNING: No tobacco product is safe, but this product presents substantially lower risks to health than cigarettes.’
  • Group 4 – ‘FDA approved.’

Group 5 was shown an ad with no warning, and group 6 were shown unrelated ads.  Later the participants were asked if they would like a free sample of the product in the advertisement they saw (no sample was actually offered).  Their responses were compared with their answers from the beginning of the study to see if the ads had changed their perceptions.

Of course, the researchers found that more severe or graphic warnings decreased the participant’s desire to try these products in the future, while the lower risk statements (what they referred to as ‘endorsements’) did not.

In conclusion, they stated that ‘this study provides the first evidence against allowing ‘reduced harm’ or ‘lower risk’ labels on alternative tobacco products,’ and that ‘Regulatory agencies should consider implementing graphic warning labels for smokeless tobacco and investigate use of warning labels for e-cigarettes.’

Ethical Violations

This paper contains several glaring ethical violations.

Misleading the Participants

For starters, they affixed false or misleading warning labels to advertisements of lower risk products.  Throughout the course of this study the researchers actively led many of the study participants to believe that e-cigarettes are dangerous and even cause cancer, a claim which by all current knowledge of the subject is blatantly false.

To make matters worse, the researchers do not indicate anywhere in the paper that they debriefed the participants after the study was over to tell them that their claims were not true.  So we now have a group of people who have a reason to believe that e-cigarettes contain carcinogens, and will likely tell their friends and family to avoid them.

In the course of conducting their study, these researchers may have actively led people to continue smoking rather than switch to a low risk product.  That is just plain wrong.

Intentionally Ignoring the Truth

Throughout the course of this entire paper, the actual health effects of each of e-cigarettes were not discussed.  At the beginning they flatly state that ‘tobacco use’ causes health problems, when in reality the majority of the problems they are referring to are caused by smoking.

The entire tone of the paper indicates that their primary goal is to reduce all ‘tobacco use’ as much as possible by any means necessary, yet they give very flimsy justifications for this.  They noted, ‘While it has been suggested that e-cigarettes should be promoted as ‘reduced harm’ alternatives to combustible cigarettes for smokers, there are no long term data on the health effects of e-cigarette use, and widespread promotion may also result in uptake among non-users of tobacco, which would be inconsistent with harm reduction on a population level.’

In other words, the fears of the researchers are entirely speculative, based in a possible future that may not exist.  There is no reason to believe vaping will lead to an increased number of smokers or cause serious health problems.  There’s simply no evidence any of this is actually happening.

The entire paper is focused soley on how perceptions affect tobacco use.  There is no discussion or concern at all about whether these perceptions are true.  In fact, it is implied that it doesn’t matter if the perceptions are based in fact – all that matters is whether they will have the effect the researchers desire.

Making Policy Recommendations

As noted earlier, at the end of the paper they recommend explicitly that ‘regulatory agencies’ (read: FDA) implement strong warning labels for e-cigarettes.  Their entire justification for this is that they work, i.e. they do lead to people being less likely to use the product.

However, if that is their only reasoning, then they have no business making such a recommendation.  Warning labels serve the purpose of informing the consumer about the real risks of a product.  Thus, if there is no risk, there should be no warning.

It is clear that the researchers do not view warning labels as a way to communicate risks.  Rather, they seem to view it as a ‘necessary’ form of social control.  They see no problem including false warning labels in their studies with intent to deceive (while also not informing their subjects that the warnings were false), and they think this tactic should be implemented nationwide.

If the researchers cannot even understand the purpose of warning labels, they should not be making any recommendations to the FDA on how and when warning labels are used.


This paper has, understandably, come under heavy criticism by public health experts.

Clive Bates, author of the Counterfactual, wrote a detailed point-by-point criticism of this paper.  He began by saying, ‘A promising contender has emerged for the coveted Worst Published Paper of All Time award…’

He noted that, in addition to the problems I detailed above, the researchers failed to account for the public health problems their proposed recommendations may lead to by discouraging smokers from switching to lower risk products.  He said they also overlooked the fact that if policymakers start promoting obviously false information, they will lose the trust of the public, which can be disastrous (imagine never trusting warning labels on anything).

Carl V. Phillips also had much to say about this study.  He said, among many other things, that the use of graphic warnings of this nature amounts to ’emotional violence,’ whereby the intent is to use someone’s emotional response to manipulate them.  He also said it is unethical to base policy recommendations on a single study, and that they give no real justification for their recommendation.

Study Supporters

This study is overflowing with severe violations of basic research ethics and codes of conduct.  So who signed off on this?

The study was conducted by Lucy Popova and Pamela M. Ling at UCSF, and was approved by their Committee on Human Research.  It was paid for with a grant given by the National Cancer Institute, and it was published in BMC Public Health.

All of these organizations endorsed this study.  Shame on them!

12 thoughts on “Researchers Call for Strong Warning Labels on E-Cigs”

  1. I hate to ask you to speculate, but if you had to….Who, and what do you think is behind all this negative, and purposely misleading information that’s coming out about e-cigarettes, and vaping, and to what end?

    1. Christina Grace

      Wynne, that is an excellent question :) I attempted to answer it, and my comment was too long and it would not post! I will attempt to shorten and just say: follow the money :) anyone who stands to lose big money due to vaping – that is who’s responsible for this. I’m banking on 3 major players: big tobacco (lost cigarette sales), big government (lost taxes), and big pharma (lost sales of quit-smoking products). Big pharma seems to be the most aggressive by far… Please don’t take my word for it though, all of this info is available on the internet. Many vaping websites are putting this information front and center so they would be a good place to start :)

  2. I think this research is kinda bias. If you have two doors one says you die when opening this one and you live opening this one. How many are going to open the one you die, very few. If you give a person the though of bad they will always push away.

  3. Well, amongst all of the problems you cited, the biggest one of all has not been mentioned. That is, participants were told to read an advertisement that had the warning label on it, not to look at a product with a warning label on it. How in the world can anyone logically conclude that a product warning label has the same effect as a label contained in an advertisement? Given the fact that most people have developed “ad blindness” and ignore advertisements altogether, how in the world does this relate to what is put on a product at all? And, now that they have moved e-cigarette items behind the counters in many states, when are you to see the warning? AFTER you buy the product! Assuming their desire is to keep people from using the product, that’s a little too late if you ask me. Of course, practicality has never been something that any scientist or government official has ever been accused of having.

    1. Christina Grace

      It seems to me that their intent is to justify both warning labels in advertisements and on the product. Research shows that warning labels do work to some extent, even in cases like this where the warning label is blatantly false.

  4. I think they need to start putting pictures of clogged arteries on fast food wrappers and deteriorated livers on alcohol bottles…or even better, when you walk into a McD’s and order your food they have open heart surgery playing on their TV’s 24-7. Now that would be an interesting study. That would be more relevant than this pointless “research group” and what they did. It sickens me that people are deterring others from quitting smoking… especially with false information about the alternative.

    1. Christina Grace

      I agree 100%! If they’re going to put graphic warning labels on tobacco products and e-cigarettes, why stop there? What bothers me about this is their attempt to justify scaring people into thinking vaping is dangerous. There isn’t much that saddens me more than hearing a smoker tell me how they know vaping is bad for you because they heard it on the news :( and researchers like this are trying to justify making it even worse. I don’t know how they sleep at night.

  5. I favor putting a warning tattoo on the forehead of politicians, nothing is more dangerous to the well being of men, women and children than politicians.

  6. robert blair

    We are at a point in the regulation of vaping (Like it or not there WILL be regulations) where perceptions, politics, and money will come in to play. Very little going forward will have ANY connection with reality, but the people who can control the PERCEPTION of what’s going on (Buying research slanted towards their POV) and can most influence the political process (Lobbying, and campaign contributions) will be the ones with the most influence on the regulatory process

  7. If the regulations are not reasonable, then people will buy e-juice from underground sources. I’d have no qualms in doing so as the politicians that pass our laws have clearly proven to be insane. I cite the continuing failed drug war as proof of this insanity.

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