Wordly Advice

Credit: Alswart

Headlines in news stories about vaping and tobacco products are often inaccurate.

By George Gay

Many years ago, at one of my family’s sporadic gatherings, a then late-middle-aged family member told a story about a distant relative who, on returning from the Boer War discovered that his young son had developed a stammer. The father’s reaction, so the story went, was to take the boy up to the second floor of his house, hold him by his ankles out of the window, and tell him he would get the same treatment the next time he stammered, only with the added benefit that he would be allowed to free fall.

The boy never stammered again, according to the storyteller, who related this incident, I think, as an example of how, sometimes, even cruel means were justified by successful outcomes. His audience, made up mostly of younger people, were clearly not of the same opinion. They stood, in open-mouthed shock, until one of them said something like: “Of course he never stammered again, the poor chap probably never spoke again.” Whether this suggestion was true, I don’t know, but it seems to me that it cannot be ruled out.

Why did I relate the above story? Well, I was reminded of it when I saw online the following headline from a Healthline Health News story: “Low-Intensity Electric Impulses May Help Struggling Smokers Quit.” I could see a similar conversation being played out:

Researcher at conference: “Yes, the results were amazing. We just hung these smokers out of the window on live electric wires, and they quit immediately.”

Audience member: “And are they still tobacco-free?”

Researcher, now somewhat cagily: “Yes … they stopped inhaling completely.”

Audience member: “Do you mean they’re dead?”

Researcher: “Well, yes, though we’re unsure whether the cause of death was due to the electric shock or the shock of being suspended out of the window. More research is needed.”

I have a passion for headlines, and I am also very taken by the word “struggling” in the one above. It seems to try to suggest a certain empathy with smokers, but I’m not sure this isn’t misleading. On the other hand, struggling is a good word here because it seems to illustrate the breakdance you perform when you accidentally grab a live wire, and I can imagine the young boy struggling as his father grabbed him by the ankles—though not as he was being held out of the window.

Credit: Vadosloginov

Struggling is the justification, I guess, for experimenting with applying “low-intensity electric impulses” to these smokers, who have been convinced that they are victims no longer in charge of their own destinies. They have been convinced that they are addicted to smoking and that it is all but impossible to give up without the intervention of people willing to do stuff to them.

OK, I don’t want to be unfair. I’m sure the people applying the electrodes are well meaning. The story said a new study had found that smokers receiving noninvasive low-intensity electric or magnetic impulses, also described as noninvasive brain stimulations (NIBS), were twice as likely to go without cigarettes for three months to six months as were those receiving a placebo treatment. The story added that NIBS had emerged as “a new therapeutic option for several conditions, including pain management, weight reduction, alcohol use disorder and/or depressive disorder.”

The point here, however, is that while the management of pain and depression involves complex matters that have mostly defied the best efforts of researchers to come up with effective remedies that don’t do more harm than good, smoking is a fairly simple matter for which, in recent times, at least one effective—and, joy of joys, noninvasive—remedy has been developed.

Individuals, companies, organizations and some governments have spent a lot of effort and time developing and improving vaping devices—and other low-risk tobacco and nicotine products—that can wean smokers off cigarettes. And with encouragement, or at least a lack of discouragement, these devices would, I’m sure, be continually improved both in their efficacy and, importantly, in respect of their environmental credentials.

But these efforts have been hugely undermined to the point where, by the end of this year, the three most populous countries, China, India and the U.S., will have either banned vaping devices or significantly reduced their appeal. Vaping’s detractors constantly moan that one of its problems is that nobody knows what long-term effects it will have.

However, a story can be published under a health news heading supportive of a little-tested proposed quitting method that works if at all by affecting the brain, without a hint of any concern about our not knowing what the long-term effects of such brain stimulations might be.

The situation is bizarre.

But now I want to digress because I always like to spend time with my most recent favorite heading, and that isn’t the one featured above. My most recent favorite heading has to be this one from the Manila Bulletin: “Thailand ready to legalize smoke-free products like the Philippines.”

Vaping concept word cloud background

In part, I like this heading because it speaks to a debate that crops up every time a new minister is appointed to head the U.K.’s education department: English grammar. What usually happens with a new right-leaning education minister is that she comes into her post with a demand that the English language curriculum be changed so that pupils are drilled in the (soon-to-be-forgotten) minutiae of complex grammatical rules that are, in reality, of interest only to academics and the otherwise friendless.

On the other hand, a new left-leaning education minister will demand the curriculum be changed so that pupils are encouraged to be creative rather than necessarily grammatically correct, resulting, in extremis, in their producing highly creative but unreadable twaddle.

What tends to get forgotten in this debate, and in most others, is that there is a middle way in which basic grammar is taught to everyone, but the more esoteric grammar is pursued only by those with a love of such things.

To my way of thinking, the most important thing to keep in mind when writing in English is word order. But it is one of the most overlooked. Take any daily English newspaper and you are likely to see a sentence that says something like, “Joe Bloggs was yesterday sentenced to five years imprisonment in the Central Criminal Court.” Of course, this is not true. There is overcrowding in English prisons, but I don’t think anybody has put forward as a solution the idea that convicts should serve their time within the country’s courts.

The sentence should read something like, “Joe Bloggs was yesterday sentenced in the Central Criminal Court to five years’ imprisonment.”

And if we in England cannot get such basics right, it is unfair for me to poke fun at a heading in a publication whose journalists and editors are working in their second language. But, in my defense, the heading is funny because, to use one of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s favorite words, it “deems” the Philippines, a country of about 112 million people, to be a smoke-free product.

All that is needed to make sense of the heading is to change the word order to something like, “Thailand, like the Philippines, ready to legalize smoke-free products.”Or if the subs cannot take the commas, then it can be rendered as, “Thailand to follow the Philippines and legalize smoke-free products.”

But now I would like to digress again because, mainly, I’m more interested on this occasion in looking not at my most recent favorite heading but at my most recent least favorite heading, which appeared in Yle News: “One in three teens buys snus on social media, study finds.”

Wow, even though the story refers to Finland, which bans sales of snus but might be thought of as being within one of the world’s major spheres of snus interest, 33.3 percent is a huge percentage of the teenage population to be buying snus on social media, especially when you consider that, despite the ban, some teenagers must be obtaining snus in other ways, and yet others must be indulging in different types of tobacco products.

But, of course, the heading shouts out a message that is not true. When you read the body of the story, it becomes clear the heading should read, “One in three teenage snus users buys snus on social media, study finds,” which puts a different complexion on things. On this basis, there might be only three teenage snus users in Finland, one of whom buys her products on social media.

Of course, the sub-editors wouldn’t like my suggested revisions because a couple of words have been added to the heading, which now, horror of horrors, contains the word snus twice. But in the interests of accuracy, surely it would be worthwhile running what would admittedly be a clumsy heading, or at least it would be worthwhile spending a couple of minutes getting around the problem caused by a misleading heading.

It would be easy to get around the number-of-words problem by dropping the superfluous “study finds.” And you could cut out the snus repetition by replacing the second usage with the word “products.” Or if you wanted to go for a harder-hitting headline, you could run it as, “One in three teenage users buys snus on social media.”

Truth matters, and unfortunately, many casual readers, I’m sure, will have taken the heading to mean what it says. And they will have gone on to have conversations with friends and family, who will have passed the story to others … no doubt in exaggerated form. To me, the heading is likely in this way to nurture a moral panic, and, in so doing, undermine a product people can use to move away from smoking and toward a far less risky future.

The story, which was based on a School Health Promotion study, seemed to look at students widely, though the only groups specifically identified were those in grades 10–12 and vocational students. And one serious problem with the story, to my way of thinking, is that it indulges in the usual blurring of lines when it comes to references to young people, with the use, in a story of fewer than 300 words, of “children” (three mentions), “young people,” “students” (two mentions), “teens” (including in the heading, three mentions), “youths” (two mentions), “youngsters” and of course the panic-inducing “kids.”

And to add to the moral panic, the Institute of Health and Welfare (IHW) is quoted as calling for parents to keep an eye on their children’s social media activity, adding that online platforms were making it easier for young people to buy tobacco products. It could have added, but it didn’t, that it might have been a good idea to keep an eye on what was being delivered to the family’s home.

You have to ask yourself what exactly the problem is here. Well, according to the story, the study found that up to [my emphasis] 43 percent of students in grades 10–12 and 67 percent of vocational school students used a tobacco product at least once last year, “with snus becoming increasingly popular.” Here we have our old friend “up to,” which could mean that no grade 10–12 students used a tobacco product at least once last year.

Of course, it seems ludicrous, too, to base a study on whether students used a tobacco product once in a year. These people are students, not saints. I bet some of them skipped class at least once last year, drank alcohol and told fibs about the reindeer eating their homework.

And look at the tired piece about snus, ostensibly the subject of the story but simply tagged on to the end of the sentence as an unsupported afterthought: “with snus becoming increasingly popular.”

But I think the crowning glory of the story is that, after warning specifically about young people obtaining snus on social media, it comes up with the following: “However, the most common way kids are introduced to tobacco products is through friends, the study found.”

Of course, there was no quoting the IHW as warning parents to keep an eye on the direct interactions of young people. Perhaps that was regarded as a step too far. Having stoked moral panics over tobacco products and social media, it was thought to be unhelpful to start a moral panic over friends.