E-Cigarettes Cause Hearing Loss? Really? How?

By Gil Ross — Jan 28, 2016
A recent op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, written by an audiology company executive, claims e-cigarettes can cause hearing loss. How that can even be possible is a head-scratching mystery. Of course we support free speech, but straying from the facts requires us to correct his very-flawed assertion.
Courtesy Richard Levine/Corbis Courtesy Richard Levine/Corbis

A recent op-ed in the Sacramento Bee issues a strange warning about e-cigarettes, saying that they may cause hearing loss among teenagers. The piece was authored by Dave Fabry, identified as the vice-president of audiology for Starkey Hearing Technologies in Eden Prairie, MN.

While the urge is to simply view this as fear-mongering by someone who does not understand nicotine modes of action (and confuses it with smoking, which does cause hearing loss), Mr. Fabry's focus on teen hearing will get attention. He uses some time-tested advocacy tricks which make me wonder if he is really concerned about public health.

He takes note of data accumulated by the CDC about the dramatic rise in teen "vaping" (e-cigarette use), which is clearly true, but then uses it to assert his untested claim that if cigarettes cause hearing damage, e-cigarettes must also. Perhaps he does not realize e-cigarette is just a poorly-chosen name. Cigarette smoke contains hundreds of harmful chemicals; nicotine vapor does not. He cites no evidence that it impacts hearing.

The Bee enabled this by using the weasel word "may" in the headline, to obfuscate the lack of any actual data supporting his claim. The newspaper could just as easily claim e-cigarettes may cause global warming, too. All he has to do is show the impact of cigarettes on the air and allege nicotine vapor is identical and in enough quantity the planet could be ruined. Or suggest that if you eat cereal, you turn into cereal, as anti-GMO logic does.

Teen vaping is on the rise, and has been for the past several years, but instead of noting the obvious, that it is something some kids will do as a counter-culture act of rebellion, like snorting cinnamon or something else, he blames advertising. What does advertising have to do with teen ear health? Not much.

Mr. Fabry notes a "study published last June [which] confirmed the adverse effects of smoking [italic is mine] on the inner ear of adolescents." Yes, smoking is harmful to the inner ear of teens (and adults), and numerous studies published long before last June have confirmed that smoking combustible cigarettes damages hearing. We have a whole section in one of our many books here at the Council listing the dangers of smoking devoted to hearing.

But his op-ed evinces no concern whatsoever about the actual dangerous addiction smoking. Instead, he simply targets e-cigarettes, which have none of the smoke, just some nicotine. Here is where he would have run into less trouble, had he done some research: the recent "Monitoring the Future" survey of teen behaviors showed that about two-thirds of teens who vape use zero-nicotine vapor products, i.e. they vape for the flavor only; and no studies have ever shown that nicotine in cigarettes is the agent responsible for diminished hearing in smokers, despite his assertion that "...nicotine regardless of whether it is inhaled in smoke or in vapor presents a significant risk to hearing."

He just made that up.

Towards the end of his essay, he makes one good point, albeit accidentally:

"The health hazards of smoking are well-known. The good news is that U.S. smoking rates have been steadily dropping. However, e-cigarette use has been rising exponentially [sic]."

That is correct. The smoking rate among teens has plummeted to historic lows while vaping has gone up: I believe it is highly likely that e-cigarettes, which are far lower in risk to health than smoking, have replaced deadly addictive cigarettes for adults and so for teens. The uptake of e-cigarettes among "nicotine naive" (those who never smoked) is so small it can be attributed to chance/rebellion/fad.

One thing is clear: This change will be reflected in the future statistics on smoking-related diseases and premature death, because to-date there is no reliable evidence that nicotine vapor has harmed anyone.

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