Bright children are often skeptical of authority. They spot early on that many adults are stupid, and that the self-righteous ones are reliably the stupidest of all. The most strenuous posturing, they quickly realize, is usually the most spurious as well.
The young’s awareness that the old don’t know what they’re doing is a central theme of the television show South Park. Take the episode “Butt Out,” in which the show’s protagonists, four fourth-grade boys named Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny, are made to attend an anti-smoking assembly. Wearing baseball caps at odd angles, the adult speakers inflict on their audience a nauseating medley of obtuse raps and role-plays on the dangers of cigarettes. The effects of smoking are “none to the cool,” one of them declares at the end. “Word!” replies another. “If you don’t smoke, you could grow up to be just like us!” they all then shout. Alarmed at this prospect, the boys hurriedly procure some cigarettes and try to smoke them in a back alley.
Anti-tobacco campaigners try ever so hard to be hip. No one tries harder than the Truth Initiative. They employ outdated internet memes, puppets mimicking the Breakfast Club, and zombies harassing innocent store clerks. Their actors can be awkward and theatrical, their messages ham-handed and overwrought. Their more cringeworthy efforts seem, at least to this captious grown viewer, almost to shout at the Stans and Kyles of the class to give smoking a chance. Badly designed ads can indeed have such a rebound effect. To their credit, however, the Truth campaigners have largely avoided this trap. Their ads revolve around teens having substance-free fun, and the evidence suggests that such ads can work.
South Park’s “Butt Out” assembly isn’t just condescending; it’s hypocritical and illogical. The speakers tell the students not to believe “what those evil tobacco companies tell you,” but they also imply that smoking leads to abortion and AIDS. It’s a slightly exaggerated take on the very real tendency of anti-tobacco activists to flaunt a self-assured fury at the lies of others while peddling deceits of their own. A person is playing fast and loose with causation, for example, if she tells you that “Big Tobacco” sells a product that “created” a 20% “wage gap” between smokers and non-smokers.
These days the dubious claims are about vaping. Many ads denounce the Juul pod for containing as much nicotine as 20 cigarettes, even though each pod is meant to provide many cigarettes’ worth of vaping time. Other ads emphasize that people who vape are more likely to try smoking—causation versus correlation be damned. An ad produced by the State of California depicts vaping teens as terrifying rage monkeys, as though nicotine, which the ad calls “brain poison,” were PCP.
Manufacturing a cool image to stop teens from smoking is one thing; broadcasting half-truths to stop them vaping is another. Sadly, the teen vaping rate is rising. But the teen smoking rate is still falling—faster than ever, in fact—and it’s a good, even if not ideal, thing if teens switch from the one vice to the other. “No one knows the long-term effects of Juuling,” warns one ad. True enough, but those long-term effects, whatever they are, will almost certainly be better than the long-term effects of smoking. The Royal College of Physicians has found, for instance, that “the hazard to health arising from long-term vapour inhalation from e‑cigarettes” is “unlikely to exceed 5% of the harm from smoking tobacco.”
According to Pew Research Center, more than two-thirds of Americans believe that the federal government “intentionally withholds important information from the public.” Well, the federal government does not sponsor ads that say vaping is likely safer than smoking, and that urge smokers to switch to e‑cigarettes. No, it sponsors ads that make vapor particulates look worse than the Ebola virus. It’s a wonder the level of distrust is not higher.
A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that e‑cigarettes were “more effective for smoking cessation than nicotine-replacement therapy.” The advent of e‑cigarettes could save countless lives. Forward-thinking policymakers love “harm reduction” when the drug in question is heroin. Why do these tolerant Bohemians become prohibitionist Victorians when they turn to nicotine? Why does San Francisco distribute free needles but bar the sale of vaping products?
It can’t be that black-market pods filled with THC have recently caused thousands of injuries and dozens of deaths. Although nearly 50,000 people died from opioids in 2017, San Francisco’s leaders are pushing not for stricter bans, but for safe-injection sites. And pushing drugs off the black market was presented as a ground for expanding access to legal marijuana. (So far, by the way, the plan hasn’t worked. It turns out that a well-established black market can outcompete a legal market smothered in red tape and taxes. Who’d have guessed.)
Part of the problem is surely that the vaping industry is dominated by a few large companies, including traditional tobacco companies. The politicians who run our big cities think of themselves as belonging to the party of science. Sometimes it is better described as the party afraid that someone, somewhere, might be turning a profit.
In the end, however, the issue seems cultural. Many societal disputes pit the top and the bottom against the middle. In this instance the top set the drug laws, the bottom shoot heroin, and the middle vape. (All three smoke marijuana.) As in days of old, the nobility looks after the peasantry but hates the bourgeoisie.
Put another way, our professional and political optimates celebrate diversity until they don’t. One exotic creature, the average inhabitant of the American hinterland, they fear and disdain. They want to silence and control him. And when they picture someone vaping, they picture him. South Park captures the pertinent attitude and approach in a satirical exchange between Rob Reiner, the Hollywood director and activist, and an everyman smoking in a rural bar:
Reiner: Oh my God! Excuse me!
Rural man: Yes?
Reiner: Would you mind putting that death stick out?
Rural man: But, uh, this is a bar.
Reiner: Isn’t smoking illegal in bars here?
Rural man: Not in Colorado.
Reiner: Oh my God! What kind of backward hick state is this?!
Rural man: Look man, I work fourteen hours a day at a saw mill. I just got off work and I need to relax.
Reiner: Well when I relax I just go to my vacation house in Hawaii!
Rural man: I ain’t got a vacation house in Hawaii.
Reiner: Your vacation house in Mexico, then; whatever!
Reiner then declares that he will end smoking in Colorado bars. “Isn’t he awesome, you guys?” Cartman, the notorious junior fascist, remarks, awestruck, to his friends. “He just goes around imposing his will on people.”
Everyone takes for granted that teen vaping is bad. No doubt it is—all things being equal. But as Matt Stone, one of South Park’s creators, once said, the young are “not nice, innocent, flower-loving little rainbow children.” Many teens will commit a few offenses precisely because they’ve explicitly been told not to commit them. It is worth asking, therefore, not whether vaping is dangerous, but whether it is dangerous relative to other forbidden fruits. If a defiant teenager is bent on breaking the rules, and his options for doing so are snorting cocaine, smoking weed, binge drinking, smoking tobacco, huffing solvents, or vaping, do we want him convinced that vaping is the most hazardous option?
The alternative to thinking this way is to assume that with the right set of policies and the right educational campaigns, we can suppress risk-seeking behavior among adolescents. Put to one side whether, teens being what they are, we actually could do that. Would we want to? Would we want kids not to question the po-faced adults? It’s hard to know. This much, however, can confidently be said: those who argue for making children safer and more docile will always have the upper hand. Anyone with a puritanical streak can trot out the figures on how many teenagers are engaged in, or hurt by, this or that sin. The consequences of making the young risk-averse and unadventurous, meanwhile, are indirect and diffuse.
A mother whose teenage son gets drunk and falls from a balcony will not agree that his death was the price of maintaining the nation’s daring pioneer spirit. Nor should she. She will probably no longer see a dose of rebellion as a good in itself. Nor need she. But that’s not the end of it. The logic by which safety beats freedom has legs. One can plausibly attack any youth activity that creates modest risks and offers only vague benefits. Children certainly don’t need to wrestle or tackle, to throw dodge balls or head soccer balls, to roll on skateboards or sway on swings, to eat candy or drink soda, or to play violent video games. They don’t even need to keep score or win real prizes. So where is the line?
That’s a fraught question. The parents and communities raising the next generation of citizens must grapple with it. And whatever their elders do, the young, now as ever, will have to figure a lot out for themselves.
To the groups that run lavishly funded ad campaigns, however, there probably is no line. When such organizations achieve their mission, will they close their doors? Of course not. They will find another dragon to slay. They will go on burlesquing teenage catchphrases and taking liberties with statistics. They will tackle the next cause, and the next, and the next, until the kids are being lectured about the perils of loud music and stairs.
Also published by Forbes.com on WLF’s contributer page.