An increasing number of people believe e-cigarettes are just as harmful as tobacco cigarettes, according to an alarming study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In 2012, half of the United States correctly believed that e-cigarettes are less harmful than regular cigarettes. But by 2014, after an explosion of negative and often inaccurate press coverage about the dangers of vaping relative to smoking, that number fell to 43 percent.

Far from lamenting the rising misperception that vaping is just as harmful as smoking, the study’s authors appear relaxed about the findings.

“It’s a good thing that information about e-cigarettes’ possible adverse health effects has gotten out there, especially considering there wasn’t a government or public health push during the study years,” said the study’s leader, Eric Ford.

“When misinformation about health effects about any substances becomes widespread, it is usually very hard to reverse the trend. That somehow happened here,” Ford added.

Speaking to the Reason Foundation, Ford insisted he was referring to claims that e-cigarettes are totally risk-free, not that they are less toxic than tobacco cigarettes. “The harm reduction potential of switching from traditional tobacco to e-cigarettes may be significant and beneficial,” says Ford.

How Ford and his colleagues now intend to reverse the widespread misperception that the dangers of vaping are on a par with those of smoking remains to be seen.

Even the most ardent opponents of e-cigarettes will concede they are safer than traditional combustible cigarettes. The United Kingdom’s Royal College of Physicians concluded e-cigarettes are unlikely to exceed 5 percent of the risks associated with smoking, in a groundbreaking report released in 2016.

Unlike the United States public health community, the U.K. has embraced e-cigarettes as a harm reduction tool, with doctors able to prescribe e-cigarettes as a “quit smoking aid.”

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But headlines such as “E-cigarettes are no safer than smoking tobacco, scientists warn” and “Harvard study finds that E-cigarette flavors cause lung disease” have sowed doubts in the minds of many Americans over the true risks of vaping.

The spread of misinformation about the relative risks of e-cigarettes is not only detrimental to the pursuit of scientific truth but also presents a direct threat to public health.

There is now ample evidence that e-cigarettes have helped tens of thousands of smokers quit for good. If smokers struggling to quit see e-cigarettes as just another dangerous form of tobacco, they could deprive themselves of a valuable tool that might just save their lives, all in the misguided belief that they are not actually reducing their risk of contracting a smoking-related disease.

“Two decades ago, it was the tobacco industry that could be described as the ‘merchants of doubt,'” says Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association. “Today, the true ‘merchants of doubt’ are the researchers and activists who hype misleading studies and use rhetorical tactics to avoid admitting that the evidence indicates vaping is far less hazardous than smoking.”

Guy Bentley is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a consumer freedom research associate at the Reason Foundation and was previously a reporter for the Daily Caller. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.

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