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How the media used one tiny study to wildly exaggerate the threat of marijuana edibles

Since more states have legalized marijuana for medical and recreational purposes, more studies and news reports have sounded the alarm about children eating pot-infused edibles. But many of the concerns are greatly exaggerated, and are based on highly misleading statistics that make exposures to pot edibles seem much worse than they really are.

The most recent study, which was published in Clinical Pediatrics and reported by various media outlets, found the rate of children 5 and under exposed to marijuana increased by 147.5 percent in the US between 2006 and 2013. That sounds like a huge increase, but it's a very small change in terms of raw numbers: from just under 100 children total in 2006 to almost 250 in 2013.

As pediatric health services researcher Aaron Carroll points out in the video above, this means that very few children — literally a handful per 1 million kids — are exposed to pot on a yearly basis. But the study and the media reports that followed, which focused on the big percentage, gave the idea that this is a massive increase that everyone should worry about.

"I think that everyone agrees that pot edibles should be kept away from kids, just like alcohol and other drugs," Carroll said. "But the main point of this is the huge increase in exposure, especially with legalization: 148 percent is a big increase. But it's relative."

The alarmist reporting is emblematic of how the media has focused on misleading statistics to exaggerate the immediate effects of legalization on the availability of pot edibles. And more broadly it offers a view into how the media's extreme focus on new risks and trends can push aside the spotlight on much bigger threats that people may have gotten accustomed to — such as alcohol and tobacco.

How the media and study misled about marijuana edibles

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The study looked at the National Poison Data System, which tracks reports of people being exposed to potentially poisonous substances. It found that there was no significant change in the annual rate of kids 5 and under exposed to pot between 2000 and 2006, when only 11 states allowed medical marijuana. But between 2006 and 2013, as more states legalized, the study found a 147.5 percent increase in children 5 and under exposed to pot, particularly marijuana-infused edibles that kids may confuse for actual candy.

Carroll points out that media reports focused on the huge percentage increase, sounding the alarm about how many more kids are eating their parents' pot brownies and cookies now that marijuana is legal for medical and recreational purposes in more states. But when looking at the raw numbers, it's clear that a tiny segment of children — again, fewer than 250 in 2013 — are being exposed to pot edibles.

This is a common problem with reporting percentage increases, but it's very easy to see why relying only on percentages is flawed. For example, if you had $1 and I gave you $2, you would suddenly see your net value spike by 200 percent. But you probably wouldn't consider yourself rich.

Another way to look at the issue is through how reports to poison centers about pot compare to other substances. If you look at it that way, the threat of marijuana looks minuscule. Carroll cited a few statistics from the National Poison Data System: in 2013, there were more than 11,000 calls for children 5 and under exposed to alcohol, more than 45,000 calls for children the same age exposed to antihistamines, more than 28,000 calls for antimicrobials, and more than 25,000 calls for cough and cold medicines. These numbers simply dwarf the 250 calls for pot in 2013.

"Even when we acknowledge that the number for pot brownies could go up as marijuana becomes more and more legal, there's still a long way to go to reach those other numbers," Carroll said. "But if we want to improve the health of children, we should focus on the things that matter — the rate-limiting steps — if we want to make a difference. When I see stories and campaigns that focus on those things, I'll be a much happier pediatric health services researcher."

This isn't the first time the threat of edibles has been overblown

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In May 2014, the Denver Post's John Ingold reported a "surge in kids accidentally eating marijuana." Ingold wrote that the number of children going to the Children's Hospital Colorado emergency department after accidentally eating pot was "on pace to more than double last year's total."

It sounded alarming — until I looked at the raw numbers. It turns out that Children's Hospital Colorado in Aurora saw eight children who ingested marijuana edibles during all of 2013. So if that number more than doubled, we'd be looking at more than 16 kids going to the hospital in 2014 because of edible pot — out of literally hundreds of thousands of unique patients the hospital sees every year.

At the time of Ingold's report, I asked the Colorado hospital to give me the numbers for all kids the hospital had seen to that point in that year. It turns out the nine marijuana edible cases up to that point in 2014 made up less than 1 percent of the 118,000 unique patients at the hospital that year.

No children should have access to their parents' drugs. But in terms of public health concerns, the threat was pretty small. Still, the reports resulted in widespread media attention, with multiple national outlets picking up similar stories with little context about how the marijuana cases compared to other emergency visits.

New trends take up a disproportionate amount of media attention

One reason the context behind these numbers slips through reputable media outlets is because these publications are predisposed to be critical of medical and recreational marijuana legalization. States are trying a new policy experiment through legalization. It makes sense for media to scrutinize each step of that journey.

But this enormous scrutiny on marijuana legalization can give the idea that this new thing is going so wrong and bad when, in reality, it's the old problems — obesity, alcohol, and tobacco — that are hurting and killing Americans in obscene numbers.

It's not just marijuana, either. Take, for instance, the huge amounts of coverage about opioid abuse in the US. There is no doubt that there are far too many people misusing and dying from prescription painkillers and heroin. But the numbers don't seem as alarming when compared to other drugs. In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that fewer than 25,000 people died from opioid painkillers and heroin overdoses. At the same time, the CDC estimates that about 480,000 people die from tobacco each year, and 80,000 die from alcohol. That means it would take nearly two decades for as many people to die from heroin and opioid painkillers as die in one year from using tobacco, and more than three years for the same to be true for alcohol.

Again, that doesn't mean that opioid abuse (or kids eating marijuana edibles) isn't a problem. But it does show that the media and, subsequently, lawmakers focus a disproportionate amount on new threats even when the old threats are much deadlier — and even when there are things that could be done about the older issues, such as a higher smoking age or increased alcohol taxes, that could save thousands of lives.

But to break away from that, the media has to treat old threats like alcohol and tobacco as it does other drugs and new trends — instead of characterizing them as issues we just sort of have to deal with because they're now ingrained in US society.