The last time we checked in with Truth Initiative, the organization was embarrassing itself with a video depicting a GWAR-inspired metal demon ranting about nicotine-addicted worms. Since then, the anti-nicotine advertising moguls have run a series of TV commercials featuring anti-JUUL talking animals and anti-JUUL talking garbage. Earlier the media geniuses ran an ad that included anti-JUUL puppets blowing air horns.
Truth doesn’t like JUUL—or vaping in general—and the organization is willing to spend some of its billion-dollar endowment to spread the hate. But it just can’t seem to get the message right, and its motivations are suspect.
These days, Truth is promoting its text-based quit-vaping program by encouraging young people to record themselves performing risky stunts and share the videos using the hashtag #ditchjuul. The wealthy tobacco control group is partnering with influencers on Chinese social media program TikTok to spread the word. (TikTok has its own problems, like being banned on military phones because security flaws in its software make it a potential national security threat.)
Some of the videos show teens jumping on top of JUULs, dragging them behind a car, and dunking them in water, orange juice, and even in a pool while taped to a young man’s chest. Another video shows wacky youths burying a JUUL, so its lithium salts can leach into the groundwater for years to come. How cute!
Apparently no one at Truth Initiative thought about the potential consequences of promoting activities that might lead to battery cells rupturing and going into thermal runaway. That could happen when you jump on an e-cigarette, throw in on concrete, drag it behind a car, or fly it through the air with a hot-air balloon—all stunts depicted in Truth’s collection of TikTok videos.
Submerging lithium batteries in water is also a bad idea. If the device was damaged (for example, by dragging it from a car, throwing it on concrete, or jumping on it), contact with water might create a short that could lead to a fiery explosion. It’s odd that Truth would ignore these risks, since the organization’s own website has a warning about vape explosions.
“Defective, poorly manufactured and improperly modified e-cigarettes have also been known to explode and cause injury,” says the Truth website. Maybe some of the personal injury lawyers lining up to sue JUUL will start licking their chops over Truth’s eye-popping bank account.
The silly stunts and videos are intended to draw attention to Truth’s free text-based quit-vaping program. The evidence that Truth’s program works is entirely based on responses from anonymous users claiming that they have quit or “cut down” their vaping. But the Truth crew has never let facts get in the way of anti-vape propaganda, and they aren’t starting now.
Truth studied the effectiveness of its own program (seriously), and decided it’s the ideal approach to “vaping cessation” for the youth it regularly describes as being “addicted.” The program gives advice and thought exercises to the kids by text, and asks for responses. After defined periods of time, the program asks the kids to evaluate it.
After 90 days of text exchanges with the Truth computer program, 24.7 percent of participants reported seven-day abstinence from vaping, which may seem like a remarkable result considering that tobacco control activists regularly describe nicotine as being “more addictive than heroin.” On the other hand, since there is no measure of how often the participants vaped to begin with—and we know that the vast majority of teenage vapers don’t vape regularly anyway—it may not mean anything at all.
“These results are based on observational data in a population motivated to quit vaping, with a modest response rate at 3 months,” the Truth researchers wrote in a research letter to the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research. “However, they signal that a low-barrier text message intervention to promote e-cigarette cessation is desired by and acceptable to young people.”
The program is relaxed and reassuring, all fluff and feelings. “To envision life after quitting,” the researchers explain, “enrollees are instructed ‘Close your eyes. Envision what your life is like without JUUL. What’s better or different about it? What do you feel like? Reply and tell me.’”
“To engage youth,” they write, “we positioned the program as a supportive, nonjudgmental friend, with messages written in the first person or as quotes from other users.”
In the authors’ conflict of interest statement, we’re reminded that Truth is “a nonprofit public health foundation which sells enterprise digital tobacco cessation programs to support its mission-driven work.” Is that right? Or is Truth exploiting the “mission-driven” work to support its cessation program sales?
Truth sells quit-smoking programs to businesses that offer cessation services to their employees. The free anti-vaping campaign essentially serves as a promotional tool that drives the money-making activity. It’s hard to tell which activity is the primary one, but does it really matter? The organization also funds lobbying for smoke-free workplaces, which leads to laws that drive more employers to its cessation programs. It also advocates for laws restricting vapor products (using teen vaping “addiction” as the reason), which cuts off the most effective route out of smoking for adults.
That sends even more people to Truth’s for-profit cessation plans. The quit-smoking programs have a high failure rate, and employer-provided insurance covers a quit attempt every year for each employee who smokes. That means if a smoker switches to vaping, a few hundred dollars a year are removed from the quit-relapse-quit smoking cessation cycle. Vaping eliminates profits for quit-smoking programs and for the pharmaceutical companies that supply them with NRT and drugs like Chantix.
Wait, what is Truth’s mission again?