As previously reported, the FDA is expanding their “Real Cost” propaganda campaign to include attacks on vaping. That campaign, as described in the previous article, currently consists of anti-scientific attacks on smoking and smokeless tobacco use, targeting teenagers with gory images and misleading claims. While vaping is a tougher target for such propaganda, it is expected that they will continue this approach.
The FDA has disclosed one preview of the anti-vaping campaign. It was presented by FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb at an anti-tobacco symposium at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and a video of the event was posted by the university. Gottlieb’s talk was mostly a recitation of the usual smoking statistics and boilerplate, including the standard unscientific tobacco control claims which are repeated so often people start forgetting they’re nonsense. The video does not show the audience, but Gottlieb himself looked bored by what he was saying.
Gottlieb explicitly noted that the harm from tobacco use is caused by smoking, not other products, and offers the usual FDA lip-service about products having different levels of risk (though he never admits that smoke-free products pose no apparent risk). The bulk of the symposium was about FDA’s current anti-cigarette policies. And yet the only bit that was new or informative was the anti-vaping ad.
The ad and a brief video introduction and conclusion start at 36:10 in the above link. The ad alone has been posted to YouTube (with comments disabled, of course), though has not yet started running on television and so presumably has been seen by very few of those in its target audience.
The ad was given the cutesy title, “Hacked,” apparently by someone who does not quite understand what that word means and is not concerned about double entendre. The introduction inaccurately describes the “Real Cost” campaign as “educational” and announces that, “The campaign is now expanding its focus on [sic] the dangers of vaping.” It appears that the hacks at FDA will, predictably, be focusing on nicotine. The introduction goes on to assert, “We will show teens how nicotine can reprogram their brains, causing them to crave more and more.”
The dishonesty would be astonishing to anyone not already familiar with U.S. government anti-tobacco propaganda. There are no apparent dangers from vaping. The only claimed downside – the “reprogramming” – is hardly a danger. Though the claims are vague and imprecise, unlike the disease claims from previous “Real Cost” ads, they are still obviously wrong: Computer code is a misleading metaphor for human mental function; the brain and mind change in reaction to any stimulus, but are not programmed; the nicotine molecule is not acting, the person is; and the implied boundless increases – “more and more” – is wrong since the brain’s receptivity to nicotine is limited.
Most important, there is no possibility that thirty seconds of manipulative cinematography is going to “educate” or “show” anyone anything. It is possible to make an argument that acquiring a preference for nicotine has net downsides and is fundamentally different from other learned consumption preferences (though many of us disagree, of course). But such an argument is subtle and requires information and analysis. By contrast, “Real Cost” ads are designed to cause the audience to believe asserted conclusions without any information or arguments. Someone inclined to use FDA’s metaphor would have to observe that the ads are designed to reprogram people’s brains through trickery.
The new ad shows teens skating, bowling, and visiting a diner, using camerawork and a musical score that mimic a climactic scene in a horror movie. The kids are shown with mangled faces, another horror movie conceit and a subliminal suggestion about nonexistent physical harms. We quickly learn that this is meant to represent their mouths becoming deformed so that they can only interface with an e-cigarette. Specifically the shape interfaces with the rectangular Juul, further reinforcing the previously reported suspicion that FDA is working hand-in-glove with extremists in Congress like Sen. Chuck Schumer, who attacked that product specifically.
The voiceover simply asserts the claims presented in the introduction. The scary imagery and soundtrack are intended to make scientifically uninteresting phrases like “deliver nicotine to your brain” sound ominous and threatening. It is difficult to overstate the irony of using information-free emotional manipulation to convince the audience that something else “programs” the brain.
After the ad, the video concludes by stating that “Ads will be placed where teenagers spend their time, and they will be directed to the website to learn more.” The referenced website does not appear to yet exist. In his follow-up comments at the symposium, Gottlieb states that a “full scale” campaign will start in 2018.
The good news for vapers is that if this is the only messaging, it will minimize how much they are subject to spillover harassment. Vapers will not be confronted by friends telling them to worry about some supposed health risk from vaping. The easy response to friends who have been taken in by this propaganda and say “but don’t you know that vaping delivers nicotine to your brain!” is “um, yeah, that is why I like it.”
WATCH The Ad: