What Is the CDC Implying with this Vaping PSA?

A year-old ad has recently popped up on some platforms with more aggressive language.

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May 2 2016, 5:40pm

Is vaping partly to blame for Kristy's lung collapsing? That's the question you might be asking after seeing this ad:

That's a screengrab of an in-app ad for a Centers for Disease Control campaign called "Tips from Former Smokers," which has been going on since 2012. The ad was captured and shared by a vaper on Reddit. The "tips" ads are part of a pretty powerful campaign that shows the real life effects of smoking, but this particular ad—released last year—puts a bizarre emphasis on smoker Kristy's e-cigarette use.

Kristy, a 35-year-old truck driver from Tennessee, started smoking when she was 13, according to the CDC's site. At the age of 33, suffering from shortness of breath and a nasty cough, she tried switching to vaping but continued smoking at the same time. Eventually, Kristy went back to only smoking cigarettes, and soon after her lung collapsed. She has since quit smoking.

This isn't exactly a shocking tale. If you smoke regularly for 20 years, there's a risk your lung might collapse. In fact, that's why so many vapers switch to e-cigarettes: to quit smoking and reduce their risk of events like that. But if you just glance at the CDC's ad copy, it makes it sound like vaping had something to do with Kristy's health issues.

There's a chance the copy in the app's ad wasn't written by the CDC (I reached out to the CDC's press office but have not yet heard back), but even still, the language of the campaign on the CDC's website puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that Kristy wasn't able to quit smoking by vaping.

"I thought I could quit smoking if I was smoking an electronic cigarette because it's the same thing, they said, minus all the chemicals," Kristy says in one of the campaign videos. "It wasn't any better for me. I never did quit."

The tagline for Kristy's ads are that "cutting back isn't enough," which in general is true. Studies have shown that smoking even just five cigarettes a day doubles your risk of dying from heart disease, compared to never smoking.

But for a lot of vapers, continuing to smoke—called "dual use" in public health lingo—is just a phase, a stepping stone on the way to giving up cigarettes completely. One study showed that 46 percent of dual-users will quit smoking within a year, and another showed that cutting back on cigarettes per day increases a smoker's likelihood of quitting by up to 290 percent.

The CDC has a history of being skeptical about vaping and—unlike some public health groups in the UK—has yet to embrace it as an aid to quitting smoking. It's also flubbed up some vaping facts in the past, like that e-cigarettes don't contain tobacco, and there's no evidence showing they're a "gateway" to smoking, according to Dr. Michael Siegel, a tobacco researcher at Boston University who runs a fact-checking blog on public agency statements about vaping.

"I think their main purpose here is to demonize e-cigarettes," Siegel told me over the phone. "What they're talking about is the importance of quitting and the fact that this one person tried to use e-cigarettes to quit and failed does not mean every smoker in the country should not even try."

In general, it's understandable that the CDC would be hesitant about enthusiastically promoting a relatively new technology that's still unregulated in the US and for which we still don't know the long-term effects. But there's a difference between being hesitant and casting e-cigarettes as a useless threat that could lead to your lung collapsing.