POLITICO-Harvard poll: Americans worried about data hacks, want higher taxes on e-cigs

A doctor wears a stethoscope | Getty Images

The POLITICO/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health poll showed increasing concern about the safety of e-cigarettes. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

One in four Americans report that their data has been hacked. And among those who have searched online for health information or products, about the same percentage are very concerned that it might be used to frustrate their efforts to get medical care, a job or health insurance, according to a new POLITICO/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health poll.

The poll also showed increasing concern about the safety of e-cigarettes, with about twice as many respondents rating marijuana safer than vaping.

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The survey, which was designed by Harvard and POLITICO, interviewed a representative sample of 1,009 Americans. The answers had a margin of error of about 5 percent.

The poll showed that only a third of Americans had a “great deal” of trust that their doctor’s offices would secure personal information; 24 percent had great trust in hospitals, while only 17 percent were very trusting of their health insurer. Even lower percentages trusted social media, online retailers, credit card companies or the government to protect their data.

The poll found that 25 percent of respondents reported that an unauthorized party had accessed their personal information — such as a credit card or Social Security number— in a way that harmed them. “One in four is a lot, it’s not abstract,” said Robert Blendon, a Harvard professor of health policy and political analysis, who helped design the poll.

The relatively high trust in doctors appears to be contributing to growing use of portals set up by health systems to allow patients to view their health information and interact with providers online.

A quarter of adults say they have a portal, and most of those who have signed up use them, the poll shows. Some 59 percent have used their portal to schedule an appointment, while about two in five have requested a refill or gotten advice about a health problem through the portal.

“The fact that people trust their doctors is consistent with many other data sources,” said Lucia Savage, a former Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information privacy chief, who now leads privacy efforts for the startup Omada. Consumers want to engage online with providers, whom they trust, she said, and the 25 percent figure “belies the claim by health care institutions that people are not interested in on-line tools.”

While more than half of those polled were “very concerned” their Social Security numbers could be hacked, less than a third worried about the hackers gaining access to information about their health or medications.

Stories in the news recently about social media privacy violations are top of mind for many people, Blendon said, but “people generally trust people who care for them. They don’t trust school systems but they trust teachers. And they are more suspicious of things like social media that seem to have incentives to share their information.”

High levels of mistrust of e-cigarettes

The poll also showed that as e-cigarette use grows, including among high school and middle school students, Americans are generally skeptical that vaping will make a positive contribution to health. Only one in four of those polled think e-cigarettes are effective at helping people stop smoking cigarettes.

Surprisingly, nearly half of Americans think electronic cigarettes are “very harmful” — double the percentage who think the same of marijuana.

When asked what should be done to counter the risks of tobacco vaping, two-thirds of those polled favored taxing e-cigarettes at the same rate as traditional cigarettes. While 74 percent of Democrats supported the higher tax, so did 66 percent of Republicans, the poll shows.

Two thirds of adults favored raising the legal buying age for e-cigarettes to 21, while about half of adults favor eliminating the sale of flavored liquid nicotine.

The high percentages of people of both parties who support higher taxes “has significance to cash-strapped localities,” Blendon said. “It opens up a legitimate way for states and cities to raise revenues.”

While public health officials tend to see e-cigarettes as at least a potential pathway to end an addiction, the public “doesn’t buy that argument,” he said.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story did not clearly state that the concerns among 1 in 4 Americans about online privacy referred to concerns among those Americans who had ever searched online for health information or products.