The end of teen smoking is here

The Truth campaign has succeeded beyond expectations, but adolescent nicotine use lives on

September 23, 2014 6:00AM ET

In the history of American advertising, no one has endured a fall from grace quite like the tobacco companies. They have gone from premiere sponsors of first-rate radio and TV dramas to industry pariahs, forced to surrender billboard and public-transit ads in 46 states. What’s more, the tobacco industry was compelled by its 1998 settlement to fund The Truth, a huge campaign to encourage kids not to smoke. The crusade does what Big Tobacco is no longer allowed. It targets children, buying high-value ad time rather than taking donated Ad Council slots. If you watch half an hour of MTV, you’ll likely see two or three of these spots. This year the campaign has taken on an ambitious new goal: Finish off teen smoking once and for all.

As part of the tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of 1998, the four largest U.S. tobacco companies agreed to a number of conditions, including advertising restrictions and forking out $1.3 billion over five years for a new anti-smoking advocacy group called the American Legacy Foundation. The foundation promotes anti-smoking efforts and maintains a digital archive containing the millions of tobacco industry internal documents acquired through litigation, which often feature in its ads.

The Truth campaign is totally unapologetic, embarrassing tobacco companies with their own words, associating them with racism, homophobia and plain old murder. As its rhetoric improved, the campaign began to resemble the corporate ads it was trying to warn kids about. It’s a fight-fire-with-fire strategy, and it has worked: By the foundation’s numbers, only 9 percent of teens smoke, down from 23 percent in 2000.

With its new #FinishIt series, Truth aims to bring that number all the way down to zero. To get there, its lead ad features bumping electronic dance music, dudes wearing knockoff Guy Fawkes masks, Occupy Wall Street visuals and unnecessary close ups of Facebook and Instagram posts. Smoking is compared to VHS tapes and landlines. “We can be the generation that ends smoking,” reads the all-caps message on top of flashing pictures of stylish teens.

It could be an ad for anything you were trying to sell to millennials — and a good one at that, albeit a tad creepy. The campaign’s website describes the new goal of smoking elimination as “pretty awesome” and “super close.” Online, teens can find a signature orange box to put over their social media profile pictures to indicate they’re part of the 91 percent who don’t smoke.

Teaching kids how to make good choices for themselves means giving them more than prohibitions, even if that’s harder to market.

What’s remarkable about this new campaign is that it makes use of an old anti-smoking tactic in a new way. Before the Master Settlement Agreement, Big Tobacco attempted its own anti-teen-smoking programs, foregrounding peer pressure as the cause for underage smoking, thus insulating from fault industry efforts to recruit teen smokers. A National Institutes of Health study found that these programs “do more harm than good,” but the peer-pressure line stuck. The anti-smoking campaigns of my childhood encouraged kids to rely on our own judgment even if everyone else is doing it, giving us strategies to say no to friends and older cool kids alike. These ads may not have been particularly effective, but they spoke to even loftier goals than smoking cessation. Now with teen smoking down in the single digits, peer pressure is Truth’s best friend.

In nonprofit meetings across the country, I have no doubt that starry-eyed directors are telling their employees to come up with something that will go viral. The ice bucket challenge to support a cure for ALS was a moon shot, a one-in-a-million public relations hit that set a new standard for nonprofit outreach. Celebrities, politicians and a lot of people in your Facebook feed posted videos of themselves dumping bucketfuls of ice water on their heads, and a portion of them went on to learn about ALS and donate money for research. It was a triumph of creativity and conformity at the same time.

A campaign against peer pressure, one that encouraged kids to go against the grain and not follow their friends’ example, wouldn’t have the same viral potential. Social media trends work best when everyone feels compelled to participate. While Truth ads traditionally focused on giving kids accurate information and unabashedly vilifying the tobacco industry — often one and the same, considering the industry’s decades of lies and propaganda — the campaign is now pursuing its goal directly with the peer influence of what it calls “a huge army.”

But eliminating teen smoking might not be a broad enough message. A 2013 CDC report found that e-cigarette experimentation among high school students more than doubled during the 2011–12 school year, from 4.7 percent to 10 percent. Maybe it’s a good thing that teen rebels are switching to smoke-free forms of orally fixated nicotine rebellion (it’s too early to tell, scientists say), but teaching kids how to make good choices for themselves means giving them more than prohibitions, even if that’s harder to market. When a single-issue campaign like Truth wins, it makes itself unnecessary.

Reducing teen smoking is no doubt a worthy goal, and the Legacy Foundation has done a better job than most nonprofits getting its message to the people who need to hear it. The foundation received its last major settlement check in 2003 but made it last through prudent financial management. It has successfully undone much of the tobacco industry’s harmful misinformation and it did it in 15 years with rhetoric instead of punishment. Teen smokers can blame Truth when their friends hassle them for lighting up, and the organization deserves credit for that.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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