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October 18, 2018

Did the South Park Vaping Episode Live Up to Our High Expectations?

The long-awaited premiere of the South Park vaping episode was last night on Comedy Central, and it was modestly funny, but not the all-out attack on the hyperbole of the JUUL moral panic leaders we might have hoped for. I for one was rooting for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the FDA commissioner to get the full South Park treatment.

That didn’t happen, but the episode did have funny moments. Cartman and Butters had formed a “vape syndicate” (one of three in the school), selling vapes and e-liquid to classmates, but falling into debt to their sixth grade suppliers.

When Kyle discovers that they’ve been selling to kindergarteners, including his brother Ike, he investigates, and is enraged to find five-year-olds vaping on the playground.

“Relax, bitch,” says one vaping tot. “Try some Gummy Bear Surprise.” To the show’s credit, they don’t take the easy way out and target JUUL, although Butters’ coat is packed with suspiciously JUUL-like pods.

There is a dual plotline with Randy buying a cannabis farm, and a war between “traditional” cannabis and an evil Big Vape company buying up the pot farms. The writers have a keener eye for the pretensions of the weed people than the vaping (or anti-vaping) characters though, showing Randy wearing 100 percent hemp clothing, and drinking hemp milk.

The best we could do for an embed is the trailer for the episode (above). But the full version should be available to watch starting today on the South Park Studios website. It’s worth watching — but it isn’t even in the same ballpark as their classic 15-year-old tobacco control episode.

A 2003 episode titled “Butt Out” lampooned the authoritarian bent of tobacco controllers — especially the win-at-all-cost tactics of the California anti-smoking movement. That effort earned the South Park creators allegiance from libertarians, whether they really wanted it or not. Unfortunately the episode is not available to watch free on the South Park Studios site.

In that episode, the South Park creators took swings at school anti-smoking propaganda (it’s so awful it makes the kids start smoking), at tobacco control’s insistence that tobacco companies (who are no longer allowed to advertise) are driving teen smoking uptake with expensive marketing, and at Stanton Glantz — or at least a Glantz-like character who appears in the guise of a wealthy, entitled, gluttonous Rob Reiner.

The episode took all the qualities of tobacco controllers that vapers know and don’t love and skewered them like a moldy kabob

According to an interview with the show’s creators, transcribed in Christopher Snowdon’s blog, they really were attacking Rob Reiner, and not Glantz. But the parallels are uncanny, and the idea that a grossly overweight, sedentary middle-aged man would lecture other people about their health plainly screams Glantz. The movement to ban smoking in public places and then private businesses began in California, and Glantz was one of that movement’s architects.

“This is how we get rid of smokers,” says Glantz/Reiner, as his fellow tobacco controllers lurch about the room, hissing like zombie vampires. “We go state to state and do things like these bogus studies, and make expensive commercials to get the public on our side and force cigarette smokers to stop.”

“Wow!” says Cartman, in love with the idea of tobacco control. “It’s like smoking brings a lot of people just a little bit of joy, and you get to take that away from them. You are so awesome.”

“You kids need to understand something,” lectures Glantz/Reiner. “Sometimes lying is okay — like when you know what’s good for people more than they do.” The episode took all the qualities of tobacco controllers that vapers know and don’t love and skewered them like a moldy kabob. It was beautiful.

Smokers created vaping without any help from the tobacco industry or anti-smoking crusaders, and vapers have the right to keep innovating to help themselves. My goal is to provide clear, honest information about the challenges vaping faces from lawmakers, regulators, and brokers of disinformation. I recently joined the CASAA board, but my opinions aren’t necessarily CASAA’s, and vice versa. You can find me on Twitter @whycherrywhy
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