The Role of the New Zealand Media in moral outrage, mass hysteria and “fake news.”
In September, the media reported a whole swathe of illnesses and deaths due to e cigarette use across the US and the world that has been termed EVALI. These were due to illegal THC cartridges and not nicotine e liquid that is used in conventional e-cigarettes, as has now been acknowledged by the Centers for Disease Control just this week.
However, there has been no mention of this in the NZ media, no clarification or retraction of earlier stories that went to air/publication that created moral outrage and public distrust in one of the most effective methods of tobacco harm reduction available and that can assist Aotearoa meet its SmokeFree 2025 goal. And one has to wonder why that is and how that could be considered acceptable journalism.
At the same time as the EVALI “epidemic” in the United States, and in the months subsequent, the New Zealand media also reported on the alleged “Youth Vaping Epidemic” in Aotearoa by actively promoting stories on a non scientific based study by the Cancer Society that is based on perception of youth vaping and articles, such as this one that had the head of the secondary school principals associating stating over youth “I would guess at least 30 to 40 per cent of our students have at the very least tried it. Some principals are reporting more than 50 per cent.” whilst completely ignoring the verified information from Action on Smoking and Health (ASH NZ) on youth smoking and vaping that Hon Jenny Salesa herself announced at the vaping policy forum in April 2019.
The media also continues its misinformation about youth vaping, with an article published by the New Zealand Herald entitled “One in four teens vapers have never smoked tobacco, study finds”, when the reality is One in four young teenagers who have tried vaping have never smoked tobacco, new research has found. (italics for emphasis). Ever trying something and daily use are not the same.
This information has been confirmed by an article recently published in the Lancet entitled “Use of e-cigarettes and smoked tobacco in youth aged 14–15 years in New Zealand: findings from repeated cross-sectional studies (2014–19)” that proves the earlier findings from the Statistics New Zealand survey done by ASH NZ that daily use of e cigarettes by youth sits at 3% and the youth smoking rate has dropped to 3% in 2019 from 14% in 2007.
Professor Robert Beaglehole, who is the head of Action on Smoking and Health NZ (ASH NZ), was on TVNZ Breakfast show on 23 January and stated “Of the 30,000 Year 10 students surveyed, nearly 40 per cent had tried e-cigarettes but only three per cent vaped on a daily basis.” and “there are many more dangerous things for young people to try than vaping. Vaping is not an issue we should be desperately worried about in young people.”
All of the unbalanced reporting and scaremongering have led the public to believe that vaping is dangerous, bad, and a threat to our children – none of which is true.
The New Zealand media has done a great disservice to smokers who may have been scared into not taking up a safer alternative out of fear of harm and through attempting to influence the regulatory process away from risk proportionate, future proofed legislation of the products by scaremongering, misinformation and fear tactics generated from the media frenzy.
By choosing not to actively research facts presented to them, they created a situation whereby smokers in Aotearoa who had been considering making the switch, were put off over fears of illness and/or death.
The media is also being used to influence the regulatory process away from risk proportionate, future proofed legislation which will only benefit corporate interests and not the health of the public.
Producers and news editors instead have seen and continue to see these “epidemics/issues” as an opportunity to actively engage with their viewership and readership via sensationalism. Fear sells – it get viewers, it generates revenue, its gets the online clicks – so the questions are: Are the NZ media negligent for scaring smokers away from quitting; for creating public moral outrage and hysteria within our communities in the pursuit of clickbait and viewers/readers that is detrimental to the health of our citizens and the SmokeFree 2025 goal? If so, what will the BSA and government do about it, if anything?