Tall tales and toxic tweets about e-cigarettes are stopping smokers quitting

Quitting smoking can be ­difficult, and it seems social media can make the process even tougher. Because even when we sense the health information we read online might not be true, we can still be guided by it.

Researchers in Bristol looked at the effect Twitter misinformation had on people who were considering moving from regular cigarettes to e-cigarettes in a bid to quit.

Astonishingly both UK and US adult smokers who were considering a switch to vaping were deterred by tweets falsely implying e-cigs are more harmful than conventional cigarettes.

Bristol University and Pennsylvania University researchers are the first to examine the effect of this type of misinformation, which has important implications for public health.

In the Cancer Research UK-funded study, 2,400 adult smokers were recruited from the US and UK to take part in an online experiment.

They were shown different types of health information and asked for their opinions on e-cigarettes, their ­intention to buy them, how they perceived them compared to regular cigarettes and their intention to quit smoking. Then they were asked to look at four tweets, and were quizzed about each one. Was it effective? What was the likelihood of them replying, retweeting, liking and sharing the tweet? And what was their emotional response to the tweet?

Results showed that US and UK adult smokers were deterred from considering using e-cigarettes even after brief exposure to tweets saying e-cigarettes were as harmful, or more damaging, than smoking.

Associate professor Andy Tan of Pennsylvania University says: “This is the first study to explore the effect of exposure to misinformation about e-cigarette harms on Twitter among smokers.

“These findings are important because they show that even brief exposure to misinformation about e-cigarettes may be hindering efforts to reduce the burden of tobacco smoking on current smokers in the US and UK.”

Dr Caroline Wright, of Bristol Medical School, and the study’s lead author, said: “Health information is commonly accessed online, with recent reports showing around 63% of UK adults using the internet to look for health-related information and 75% of US adults using it as their first source of health information.

“However, this ease of accessing information comes at a cost as the spread of misinformation can have negative consequences on people’s health choices and behaviour.”

By the way, e-cigarettes aren’t completely harmless but their short-term health risks are considerably lower than smoking regular cigarettes.

Shouldn’t we be regulating all forms of health misinformation on social media, and improving people’s skills to spot inaccurate information?