Misinformation and disinformation against tobacco harm reduction

La mala información, la desinformación y las noticias falsas
Foto: Jena Fetalino Public Relations Consultancy | Edición: Vaping Today

Access to information is a human right. And the quality of the information depends on the authenticity, reliability, and factual precision of the data set that compose it so that it can be delivered, objectively, and without dogmatic nuances.

In a global study conducted in 2019, 62 percent of respondents felt that there was a large amount of fake news on websites and online platforms. And it is easy to perceive that they are right.

There are more than 1 billion smokers worldwide and eight million preventable deaths from tobacco use each year. In this context, many of the most important social actors that could contribute to promoting the change towards a smoke-free world – such as politicians, government agents, doctors, lawyers, journalists – and those responsible for many of the health organizations continue to deny the empirical evidence. and scientific. They continue to avoid dialogue and continue to cooperate with the spread of misinformation and misinformation that we are subjected to every day.

To seek to understand all of this a bit, we spoke with Jena Fetalino about information in the area of Tobacco Harm Reduction (RdDT). Fetalino is a respected public relations consultant based in Parañaque, Philippines.

She has worked there for two decades in the publishing world. As president of Mosman NewMedia, she received recognition for the health professional publication The Medical Observer. She beat out magazines such as TIME and Newsweek in the category of Best Cover from the Society of Publishers in Asia Award in 2002. In 2014, she was named Executive of the Year in the Business Services category at the Stevie Awards for Women Entrepreneurs in New York.

Vaping Today (VT): Disinformation, misinformation, and fake news try to circulate erroneous, inaccurate, incomplete information, almost always transvesting the veracity and credibility of the journalistic format. Is there a conceptual and impact distinction between these modalities?

Jena Fetalino (JF): Discerning the truth has become more challenging in the age of the Internet because almost everyone has an opinion on every issue.  Social media enable users to express and share their opinion—whether they are true, half-true, or untrue.  Unfortunately, what is true to some may not be to others.  A coin has two sides, after all.

How can we then determine if the information is accurate? I think it is time to revisit the basic tenets of journalism—which are accuracy, objectivity, and fairness.  The Journalism profession has established some rules on objectivity.  For centuries, this is how journalists have delivered the news.  Sadly, many newspapers have folded up and have been replaced by bloggers and influencers who have yet to learn the principle of objectivity—which is about presenting all sides to a story and letting facts speak for themselves.

Facts are real occurrences that are best verified by scientific evidence.  Facts are what remain after you strip information of opinion, bias, emotion, ideology, morality, or intent. In the legal field, intent or malice is what distinguishes murder from homicide.  In the same way, intent can slay the truth and can exacerbate the lies.

And the enemy of truth is misinformation and disinformation.  While both refer to inaccurate information, one is more deliberate than the other.

I put it this way.  Misinformation occurs when someone tells a rumor casually, while disinformation takes place when someone repeatedly spreads a lie intentionally to discredit someone or something.  In other words, intent is what separates disinformation from misinformation.

A misinformed individual, however, is equally guilty as the bearer of disinformation for spreading lies. The legal doctrine “Ignorance of the law excuses no one” is also applicable in this case.

Fake news can be either a product of misinformation or disinformation in the news format which quickly spreads through social media because of their attention-grabbing headlines.  Fake news can take many forms—it can be false or inaccurate, invented, half-baked, stretched, outdated, bereft of evidence, wrongfully interpreted, or simply unscientific. 

The impact of misinformation, disinformation, or fake news can be devastating to a person or an entire society, especially if it involves public health such as the demonization of tobacco harm reduction.

Vaping Today (VT): Is there a way to defend, counter-attack, and eliminate them?

Jena Fetalino (JF): Eliminating misinformation, disinformation and fake news won’t be possible as long as there are people who foster them.  Freedom of information is a human right in democratic nations, after all.

The best way to address them is not only to defend or counter-attack but to present factual information more often, and more aggressively than the opposite sides present theirs, so that we can get more allies, supporters, and believers.

This is now a war of information—in traditional media, Twitter, Facebook and other media. And it may take time to win the war. 

For many centuries, people had believed the world was flat, no matter what Greek mathematicians, early geographers, and navigators said. It was only in 1959 when the first image of the round Earth came out that most people knew what a planet looked like.  A picture was solid evidence in this case.

I believe that science has its own way of showing the truth.  If THR products are really less harmful than combustible cigarettes, more and more scientific evidence will come out to support it in such a way that this can no longer be denied.  Our role is to make sure the evidence is clearly and accurately disseminated to the public.

Vaping Today (VT): Tobacco Control Advocates, Science Deniers, Prohibitionist Ideologues, National Health Agency Bureaucrats, and Funding Billionaires, Who Are the Major Players Against Smoke-Free and Low-Risk Nicotine Products Are the enemies of truth in the universe of harm reduction from smoking?

Jena Fetalino (JF): You are right in saying that THR is opposed by a broad range of critics—from pro-tobacco to anti-tobacco.  Why is that?

This is because like other disruptive technologies, THR has threatened the traditional tobacco industry and offended the ideology of anti-tobacco industries.

We would not go to the extent of questioning the intention of prohibitionists, moralists, anti-tobacco groups, public health officials, healthcare professionals, and politicians who may also truly want to save smokers from the dangers of smoking.  While their intention might be laudable, their opposition to THR products could do more harm than good because it would deprive smokers of the most effective means to quit smoking.

Sadly, they are so opposed to THR products that they perpetuate lies and misinformation against THR and distrust the research produced by experts in the field. 

Instead of producing research to find out the truth, they conduct studies to support their prejudgement.  In other words, they are not being objective.

Vaping Today (VT): Could it be said that their motivations are moral, ideological, economic, or an assemblage of motives? What are their goals?

Jena Fetalino (JF): Their motivations also vary—from moral to opportunistic.  Tobacco companies obviously want to discredit the innovative products to perpetuate the existence of the traditional industry, while anti-tobacco groups oppose anything that has to do with nicotine, which is the wrong target based on various scientific studies.  It is the smoke, and not the nicotine, that is responsible for diseases, according to these studies.

Some smokers also discredit THR products because they simply don’t want to quit and switch to other options.

Prohibitionists and moralists, on the other hand, will always oppose things that they don’t like or understand.  Sadly, the quit-or-die approach proved ineffective among millions of smokers.

Meanwhile, there are well-funded groups that spread not only misinformation but also disinformation to malign and demonize THR products.  These groups push for a ban on THR products while refusing to endorse similar restrictions on combustible cigarettes.

Finally, there are highly cautious health authorities led by the World Health Organization (WHO) that wait for more years of evidence before acknowledging the tons of scientific evidence presented in favour of THR products.  Unfortunately, the indecision on the part of the regulators results in 8 million deaths among smokers each year.

Vaping Today (VT):  From the demonization of nicotine, popcorn lungs, EVALI (outbreak of lung disease related to marijuana vaping from illegal markets), to the allegation that vaping is a risk factor for COVID-19. How to face so much misinformation, half-truths, and totally false news and bring the truth on all those issues?

Jena Fetalino (JF): As I have mentioned above, various groups are out to circumvent or stretch the truth about THR. 

Amid all the confusion caused by misinformation, disinformation, and fake news, we need more people who truly believe in THR to speak up about the unvarnished, ungarnished truth. 

Exposing the unvarnished, ungarnished truth means fully relying on scientific evidence to do the talking.  Sometimes, we get too emotional or affected that we forget to cite the basic facts—what the evidence shows.

In  Journalism parlance, there is a saying about letting the numbers speak for themselves.  This means avoiding descriptive language such as “few” or “many” and replacing them with real numbers like “2” or “100”.

This is why in the case of THR, we keep on citing studies showing that e-cigarettes are at least 95-percent less harmful than combustible cigarettes.  That is precise messaging that hopefully most people will understand.

Vaping Today (VT): How could such a technically complex and empowered body as the World Health Organization act to combat misinformation? And what would be the reason for this inaction?

Jena Fetalino (JF): The WHO has been heavily criticized for its late declaration of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2019.  It also took some time before the WHO endorsed the use of face masks as a shield against the virus.

With a tattered reputation, the WHO tried to make up for its shortcomings by issuing more aggressive statements in the subsequent months.

While the smoking epidemic is not as critical as the coronavirus pandemic at this point, it could be as lethal because of the 8 million people who die each year of smoking-related illnesses.

As I have said before, the WHO is being highly cautious or calculating in terms of making a definitive stance on THR products.  Sadly, its obstinate refusal to acknowledge THR as an effective health strategy gives way to a lot of lies to spread even among the healthcare community.

In some cases, the WHO was the source of misinformation being followed black and white by some countries.

This is why it is important that we continue to cite the results of studies on THR published by peer-reviewed journals as our best tool to demolish misinformation and ask the WTO to explain why it refuses to acknowledge THR in the face of undeniable evidence.

Vaping Today (VT): What could you tell us about the role of disinformation and fake news in the BREXIT process? And, in that sense, in your opinion, what are the impacts and what could be the consequences in the short and medium-term of Brexit in the policies of THR in the European Union and the rest of the world?

Jena Fetalino (JF): Unfortunately, the Brexit issue is something I would love to be enlightened more about, as I live on the other side of the globe—the Philippines.

What I know is that the UK has the most advanced regulation on THR products, particularly e-cigarettes. A lot of the studies, policies, regulations, and information on THR actually came from the UK.  Its well-informed society has led to a wide public acceptance of vaping, which subsequently resulted in a decline in the smoking rate.

As a part of the European Union, the UK implements various EU measures such as the Tobacco Products Directive and Tobacco Advertising Directive.  In case the UK withdraws from the EU, such law will no longer apply to the UK.

Aside from regulation, Brexit is also expected to affect the trade and distribution of e-liquids between the UK and the EU. 

I believe that while there might be changes in UK policies and regulations on vaping in case of Brexit, the UK is expected to remain the model country for THR regulation in the years to come, as no other country currently matches its progressive health policy.

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