It's pretty common for politicians and the public to rant about Big Pharma but most people don't know what they are talking about. Though they say "Big Pharma" the real culprits in gouging the public are instead generic companies who bilk the public (Purdue, Mylan, etc.) even though they didn't spend a penny doing any original science.

And when it comes to people who believe in alternatives to medicine and hate the real thing, they'll throw in thalidomide. What they don't know is that thalidomide was never approved in the U.S. European doctors had been using it off-label for pregnant women and American scientists discovered it caused birth defects when Europeans wanted to sell it here.

It would be a real stretch to claim e-cigarettes are like thalidomide and it is as much of a stretch for to claim there is a vaping crisis - and then compare e-cigarettes to Elixir Sulfanilamide when they have nothing in common culturally, biologically, or chemically.

Like thalidomide later, this was first rolled out in Europe as a miracle product. Sulfanilamide was touted as a pneumonia remedy and so a raspberry-flavored liquid version (other companies had capsules) called Elixir Sulfanilamide was produced in September of 1937. 

The blogger writes 

"It was a no-brainer prescription for doctors whose sick young patients were still picky enough they might reject even Jesus himself if he returned in the form of a bitter-tasting pill."

The narrative doesn't get any better after that.  We're talking about 240 gallons nationwide before the problem was caught, and no one inhaled Elixir Sulfanilamide. There is fact in their story, like that 71 adults and 34 children died,(1) due to the organic compound diethylene glycol they used to make the liquid flavoring, but then it veers off into an indictment of e-cigarettes. It is well-established that the surge in recent problems is due to what people put in vaping devices. And what they are not putting in them is antifreeze.

Nate Silver came to fame by creating a secret sauce poll weighting to show his preferred candidate in the 2008 election, Senator Barack Obama, was doing better against Senator Hillary Clinton than other surveys showed. Now his website tackles all kinds of things, usually pretty well. They are a serious group, at least until we get bizarre claims about nicotine vapor and kids swallowing Jesus.

There have been instances of pulmonary issues and e-cigarettes recently - but nowhere near the illnesses caused by raw milk despite vaping having 100X the users, and we don't see Silver's group going on about raw milk. The spike in issues has been caused by adulterated marijuana products, not legitimate commercial nicotine pods.

It doesn't matter in this story, it seems, the analogy must confess at all costs.

Instead of promoting fear and doubt about non-Big Pharma smoking cessation products, blog posts like this lend evidence to them. A lot of nicotine vapor is available from small stores, it is a reason we've testified at the White House and before FDA to support regulating the industry. Yet in hoping to get products banned that the journalist clearly does not like - generous quotes by Deb Blum, someone who invokes corporate conspiracies about everything, always work for that - the post lends weight to why companies like JUUL have prospered. Most people want safety and consistency, which FDA is out to provide. It isn't products by large companies that are blowing up in anyone's pockets or causing respiratory distress, it is people throwing anything they want into vaping devices they have even wired themselves to burn at dangerous temperatures.

I get it, blogs are loose, my blog is loose too, but I write differently for Wall Street Journal or Wired than I do here, and FiveThirtyEight should also take its audience more seriously. Not let a journalist with a vendetta damage their credibility.


(1) Legally, the company had done nothing wrong. The product contained 10 percent sulfanilamide, 72 percent diethylene glycol, and 16 percent water. Which is what they said it contained. Their only crime was using the word "elixir" when those are supposed to have alcohol. 

(2)  It led to FDA getting drug safety under its umbrella in 1938, rather than just ingredients. Efficacy would follow in 1962.