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E-Cigarettes' Nicotine Liquid Triggers Reefer Madness in the New York Times

E-Cigarettes' Nicotine Liquid Triggers Reefer Madness in the New York Times
Lindsay Fox/Flickr

Only weeks after the Los Angeles City Council approved a new law that would treat e-cigarettes like their tobacco-filled cousins, banning the vaporizers in clubs and restaurants, a new A-1 report in the New York Times paints the nicotine liquid used in the devices as the next big American poison -  "a dangerous new form of a powerful stimulant" certain to "seriously poison or kill" children.

See also: L.A.'s E-Cigarette Ban Is Gonna Happen (Very Soon)

But a closer look at the Times"Selling a Poison by the Barrel: Liquid Nicotine for E-Cigarettes" suggests hysteria along the lines of Reefer Madness. Some of the numbers, at minimum, appear to have been exaggerated. And despite the Times' assertions about the drug's potentially fatal consequences, the data clearly shows no epidemic.

In fact, the year 2012 is the latest for which the American Association of Poison Control Centers has full data on e-liquid poisonings, overdoses and deaths. The total number of people who died from nicotine liquid in 2012?

One.

And the guy "injected himself" as part of a suicide for which he left a note, according to the association's account.

A spokesman for the American Association of Poison Control Centers tells L.A. Weekly that its National Poison Data System shows a "307 percent increase from 2012 to 2013" in poisoning reports linked to both e-liquids and e-cigarettes.

The Times yesterday used that data to set off alarms about vape juice, saying that, in "tiny amounts, whether ingested or absorbed through the skin, [it] can cause vomiting and seizures and even be lethal."

The Times cites a 300 percent increase in poisoning cases "linked to e-liquid" from 2012 to 2013 and even says the number of e-liquid-"linked" poisoning cases last year was 1,351.

But the American Association of Poison Control Centers spokesman told us it doesn't have that number to give out because the report for 2013 is not complete. 

On top of all that, the spokesman said the 2012 numbers the Times published reflected "the e-cigarette category as a whole ... not liquid nicotine singularly."

In other words, it appears that the Times used a wider category to exaggerate greatly the danger in e-liquids.

As evidence, readers need only look at the association's figures online.

For 2012, there's a specific category called "Electronic Cigarettes: Nicotine Liquid." It lists just 12 poisoning reports for the year, including five "health care facility" visits. Four cases involved a child younger than five. 

Expanding the definition of e-liquid-related poisonings to include e-cigarettes themselves ("Device and/or Cartridge Containing Nicotine") gets you greater numbers, including 107 visits to health care facilities, 447 reports or "mentions" and 168 reportedly ill children for 2012.

Of course, we can imagine that the numbers in both categories - e-liquids and the devices used to smoke them - will jump in 2013 and beyond because the popularity of e-cigarettes has skyrocketed.

But the stats need to be inhaled in context. There were more reported poisonings from swimming pool products (8,200 mentions) in 2012, including 565 for children younger than 5, than e-cigarette-related medical emergencies. Really.

And then there's this:

The Times quotes an expert who says, "One tablespoon [of e-liquid] could kill an adult." We asked the source, Lee Cantrell of the California Poison Control System's San Diego Division, about that.

He stood by his remark. Sort of. He told us, "A teaspoon of highly concentrated nicotine solution could be enough to kill a child." Emphasis ours.

Then Cantrell back-pedaled a little and cited his own research in arguing that a tablespoon (not a teaspoon) of 7.2-percent concentration (and not the 10 percent also mentioned by the paper) "could be enough to seriously or fatally poison an adult at that concentration."

The Times' report says "a 2-year-old girl in Oklahoma City drank a small bottle of a parent's nicotine liquid, started vomiting and was rushed to an emergency room." She lived.

E-Cigarettes' Nicotine Liquid Triggers Reefer Madness in the New York Times
Lindsay Fox/Flickr

On top of that, pro-vape writer John Madden of the site Ecigarette Reviewed disputes the Times' assertion that some nicotine liquid contains as much as 10 percent of the drug. The Times mentions two websites where wholesale quantities of 10-percent solution can be found, claiming that an adult could be felled by coming into contact with just a little of such a mix.

It's a hard-to-find cocktail, apparently. Madden says consumers at your everyday vape lounge, tobacco shop or drug store are rarely, if ever, able to purchase e-liquid with such a high concentration of nicotine.

"I've seen 3.6 percent," he told us. "And that's very rare to find. The highest you'll usually find is 2.4 percent. The average is around 1.2 percent." There's a huge difference between that and the 10-percent solution the Times is suggesting could kill your child - or yourself.

Madden also took offense at the Times' description of e-liquids as "powerful neurotoxins."

"It's just nicotine that's a powerful neurotoxin," Madden says. That point was also made by Carl V. Phillips, a pro-"harm reduction" M.D. who wrote this yesterday:

E-cigarette liquid is not a powerful neurotoxin. Pure nicotine is, but the solutions are far short of "powerful."

We reached out to the reporter behind the story. When we asked why his figures differed from those published by the American Association of Poison Control Centers, he said, "Let me double check 'em," before saying he'd call back.

We were then referred to an editor, who declined on-the-record comment.

A backlash to the piece has erupted both in the Times' comments and on the website Reddit, where the story was derided as "pure propaganda."

Send feedback and tips to the author. Follow Dennis Romero on Twitter at @dennisjromero. Follow LA Weekly News on Twitter at @laweeklynews.