Vaping: Government unmoved, key researcher clears the air re research

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The Food and Health Department sticks to its old guns while key HKBU researcher Dr Chung Shan-shan looks to clear the air about previous media misstatements about her research results.

Photo: Dr Chung (second left) at the February press conference (Credit: COSH)

Dr Chung Shan-shan (鍾姍姍), Assistant Professor of the Baptist University’s Department of Biology, has been oft cited in Hong Kong for her research on vaping (aka e-cigarettes). Dr Chung was commissioned by the Council on Smoking and Health (COSH) between October 2015 and February 2016 to lead a studies on the potential harm brought about by vaping. She found in favour of stricter regulation, or perhaps a total ban of the product, but is keen to clear up misconceptions about the research  in previous media reports. She takes issue with previous media reports that neglected to report on nuances she presented, leaving a misleading impression that has been repeated and magnified in the community.

Related: Vaping: HK medical community at odds with British counterparts

“Neither COSH, which commissioned the research, nor we, claimed that the sample products were representative. But, like all other manufactured goods, product variability does exist. It is particularly so for vaping products as the history and experience in regulation and quality control are short when compared to many other electronic products,” Dr Chung explains. “One should understand that both PBDEs and PAHs [chemicals created from burning petroleum] are not by-products of e-liquids but rather the electronic appliances themselves. Even if the flavour is the same, different vaping products can use different flame retardants or different types of plastic resins, resulting in varying levels of emission of these by-products in the aerosols. So a thorough understanding of the health effects of vaping should not just focus on the compositions of the e-liquids but the whole e-cigarette product.”

While brief, the associate professor makes her stance clear: “Firstly, I haven’t gone through the entire the [new RCP] report, so it’s not something that I feel comfortable to comment with. Secondly, to more accurately interpret the arguments made, one needs to understand the backgrounds of the authors of this report as well. On the whole, it is a summary of available research findings at their time of writing,” she says. “I noted in our press conference that our findings on PBDEs [industrial toxic chemicals used as fire retardants] were likely the first of its kind. But so far, findings of our studies were announced only through a press conference. So I didn’t expect a literature review or a monograph that has to be based on proven scientific findings to cite from us.”

“Our findings are in a stage of being assessed by an international journal and are currently under review [i.e. unpublished]. So I believe that’s why [the RCP report] did not take into consideration our discovery,” she says.


Interpretation misquoted

The findings in Dr Chung’s studies were not without controversy, particularly concerning a statement at the press conference that the level of PAHs found in vaping devices can be a million times higher than that found in roadside air. One criticism of the statement was aimed at the direct comparison, claiming it was comparing, in effect, apples and oranges. But as Dr Chung explains, it was reporters misquoting her statement, than the statement itself being misleading.

“These units and what they represent were written very clearly in the handouts given to the reporters in the Press Conference,” a statement sent to SCMP in mid-March after the story ran. “In the informal discussion after the Press Conference, I also told the reporters that the two measurements were of different natures…This being said, my caveat was not reported.”

The statement does argue in the concluding paragraph that given the harmful components found in vaping devices, “it is no longer appropriate to encourage the use of e-cigarette or to argue that the levels of toxin from e-cigarettes is much lower than tobacco cigarettes.”


Government unmoved

The Secretary for Food and Health is a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, but his office doesn’t seem to be giving that extra weight with regard to the RCP’s report. The office reiterated its earlier position, with no reference to the new report, that evidence showing e-cigarettes are less harmful than traditional tobacco products remains “limited” and “inconclusive”, and that it can “consider regulating [e-cigarette] as pharmaceutical product” only if “there is sufficient scientific proof that e-cigarettes may be used for smoking cessation purpose”. There was no explanation offered over what it means by “sufficient scientific proof”.

COSH, meanwhile, responded by stating that it will “take reference to the local situation and global experiences to advise on tobacco control measures to be implemented in Hong Kong” but is “not in the appropriate position to comment on the findings of individual report.”