The fool factor, misleading statistics

The fool factor, misleading statistics

Why is it that whenever we get media attention on vaping from anywhere in the world, a quick dive around into the “study” behind it generally doesn’t match up to the headlines? Or should it be, why on earth are media outlets and the journo hacks not asking the right questions whenever they get their grubby little mitts on a story?

The cool factor: Teens report positive feedback to using e-cigarettes

Do these outlets really believe that by adding stuff like “the cool factor” makes it sound more appealing, or are they trying to get comfy with the youth of today? I see headlines like this and I picture Perry White in my head berating some hapless journo about not being hip.

An estimated 40 percent of teen users of e-cigarettes have never smoked tobacco, a new report finds, adding to the worries that the devices are attracting a whole new group of underage user, not just teens trying to quit regular cigarettes. Even more alarming, 91 percent of teens who use e-cigarettes report getting positive feedback about them.

Scary sub-title isn’t it? A “shocking” 40% of teen users have never smoked tobacco…along with 91% giving “positive” feedback about them. Let’s have a close look at the study they are discussing shall we?

Sample size: 2084 11th - 12th grade students with an approximately even split between the lads and lasses. The typical questions on cigarette and e-cigarette use were administered with the usual obvious misunderstanding of the e-cigarette product and terrible use pattern (“during the past 30 days, on how many days did you use these products”). Even the classification of “use” is wrong:

  • “past users” - had used in the past, but not in the last 30 days
  • “current users” - had used a product on at least one of the past 30 days (come on folks!)
  • “never users” - pretty obvious

Here’s the thing, they specifically ask “during the past 30 days, on how many days did you use these products” with the available answers of:

  • never
  • have used, but not in the past 30 days
  • have used, one or two puffs

That’s it. Given those answers even I could make statistics do what I want to justify any kind of headline. So what results did this give them?

  • 9.6% were “current users” (200)
  • 14.4% were “past users” (299)
  • 76% were “never users” (1585)

So where on earth did the “40% of teen users of e-cigarettes never smoked tobacco” come from then? You’d think that by screaming that out you’d expect to see 40% of the total number of participants in this study wouldn’t you (844)?

Well, you probably won’t be overly surprised to find that isn’t the case. At all. You see, they looked at the total number of “current users” of which there were 200 (remember “current use” is at least one day in the last 30 days) and asked them if they had ever smoked tobacco cigarettes. The result?

  • Current e-cig user, never tobacco user: 81 (40.5%)
  • Current e-cig user, past tobacco user: 53 (26.5%)
  • Current e-cig user, current tobacco user: 66 (33%)

Current e-cigarette user, in the context of the total never smokers: 4% (total “never smokers” 1694) Wouldn’t be much of a headline if they reported that “4 percent of never smoking youths are using e-cigarettes” now would it?

In contrast, only 12% of the total “never smokers” have ever tried or are using e-cigarettes. Not the 40% the media claims.

I’ve scoured the study for the “91 percent of teens who use e-cigarettes report getting positive feedback about them” and can only find this little snippet:


The “91%” quoted in the media is actually a combination of “friendly” and “very friendly” attitudes of the participants “best friend” towards them using an e-cigarette. To be honest, the classification of “unfriendly”, “friendly” and “very friendly” could be changed to a simpler, negative, neutral, positive classification method with “friendly” being neutral, which if the person was indeed your best friend they’d be friendly all the time right?

So yet again, another context failure all based on a mashup of two separate values from the “current users” (200) where the best friend is “very friendly” (consider that “positive”) about e-cigarettes to only 73 (36.5%). But then again, saying that “36% of teens reported positive perceptions of their friends when using e-cigarettes” just doesn’t have the same ring to it does it?

Of course it wouldn’t, but the statistics are carefully hidden away and distorted by the media that unless you go hunting for them, any headline can fit. Such as:

Teens Using E-Cigarettes More Likely To Take Up Smoking Tobacco Cigarettes: Study

A headline that screams at the top of its digital lungs “gateway!” for all the world to hear, when in fact the opposite is actually the case. What a surprise.

Never, current and past use of e-cigarettes and cigarettes

Taken from the study published in the journal Pediatrics this table shows that the remarkable “40%” claim only originates from within the significantly smaller “current user” bracket. A total of 81 youths, not the 844 out of 2084 that the headlines suggest.

So how about that “gateway” theory?

  • Past e-cig user, never smoker 132 (44.2%)
  • Past e-cig user, past smoker 134 (44.8%)
  • Past e-cig user, current smoker 33 (11%)

Doesn’t quite tie up with the claims here:

Researchers conducted the study on 2,084 teens studying in 11th and 12th grades in Southern California. They found that 24 percent admitted to using an e-cigarette at least once, 9.6 percent were current e-cigarette users, and 18.7 percent had smoked a traditional cigarette.

This snippet doesn’t even get the “tried at least once” figure right, it’s 14% not 24.

It’s all about context which is entirely missing from any of the articles that are beating the “gateway” drum based on this study. Disappointing, but not unsurprising.

Photo by Pixabay