How anti-smoking ads went from 'just say no' to 'damn the man'

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During Sunday’s Grammys, two public service ads made a jarring argument for quitting smoking: Essentially, that Big Tobacco hates black people. The commercials, which could have cost more than $1 million each, follow Insecure and Greatest Ever’s Amanda Seales through the streets of Washington, D.C. as she describes the racist tactics deployed by Big Tobacco over the years.

For example, that major cities have 10 times more tobacco ads in black neighborhoods than in others; that in low-income neighborhoods cigarette retailers are far more likely to be located close to schools; that black Americans were “in the past” called a “market priority” by Big Tobacco. On its website the campaign, called #StopProfiling (tagline: “Tobacco is a social justice issue”) also provides statistics on LGBTQ youth and low-income smoking rates.

The ad focuses solely on decades of systematic racism rather than, say, a cigarette’s contents (arsenic, cyanide) or what they could do to you (lung cancer, emphysema, near-certain death). This feels like a departure from most public health campaigns—the D.A.R.E ads and “smoking kills” billboards that tried (and failed) to keep me from Marlboro's embrace when I was a teen.


Typically, anti-drug campaigns frame abstention as an individual choice, a sign of sound moral judgment. (“Just say no!”) Here they’re aligned with a broader social movement, and one that’s at odds not just with the current administration but in many ways the spirit of the Grammys itself. But as the Truth Initiative, the nonprofit behind the ads, has found, framing quitting smoking as an act of resistance against The Man is more effective than trying to make the argument that lighting up is for dweebs.

Truth (formerly the American Legacy Foundation) is the country’s most successful anti-smoking group, a partnership between politicians, public health officials, and shrewd marketing experts. It's been so successful, in fact, that the number of Americans who smoke now is dramatically lower than it was in 1999 when it was formed—nowadays only 8% of its target market, people between the ages of 15 and 24, use tobacco products. (Though other anti-smoking campaigns, including extensive smoking taxes in many states, also helped.) The Truth Initiative is also very well-endowed: It reported far over a billion dollars in assets at the beginning of 2016 and invests much of its money in hedge funds and private property.

With an office blocks from the White House and a number of attorneys general and state governors on its board, Truth is a sometimes counter-intuitive alliance between politicians and the aggressive, youth-centered campaigns for which it receives praise. Its stunty TV spots take square aim at the tobacco industry. In one of its first ads, which aired during the 2000 Olympics, kids dumped body bags in front of a tobacco company’s headquarters. In another 2007 spot, a cowboy sings robot-voiced ballads through one of those ElectroLarynx machines, a gruesome spin on the Marlboro Man. Both were described a few years ago in a glowing profile in Fast Company as aiming to “be a cool kid there to clue you in on a diabolical conspiracy.”

In regards to the #StopProfiling ads, the Truth Initiative's CEO, Robin Koval, wrote in a press release Sunday: “Today’s teens are a generation with an unyielding commitment to diversity, inclusivity, and equality. It’s well documented that teens are passionate about social justice issues.”

Koval is an advertising and branding executive and Aspen Ideas underwriter. Before she joined the Truth Initiative, she did high-profile marketing for Procter & Gamble, which has been embroiled in labor and environmental scandals in Indonesia; Nestle, which pipes water from drought-stricken public lands in California; and the biopharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which illegally tested drugs on children in Nigeria. (To be fair, she’s also done work for the Girl Scouts.)

One could safely assume the #StopProfiling ads and the Truth Initiative's recent campaign to examine social justice issues were born out of focus groups. “It’s common for LGBT individuals to experience disparities that stem from social stigma and discriminatory treatment,” reads the beginning of the Truth Initiative's segment on the smoking rates of LGBTQ communities. Some of that discriminatory treatment might include, for example, being barred from legal adoption, being unable to marry, or feeling unsafe as a trans person in school, all initiatives spearheaded or supported by Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, a member of the Truth Initiative’s 12-person board of directors since its inception.

Such close ties to Washington were built in from the beginning: Sporadic, halfhearted ads like Philip Morris’s “Health Rocks” or Lorrilard’s “Tobacco is Whacko if you’re a teen” has been funded by Big Tobacco money since the ‘80s, typically in response to potential legislative action or a dip in public opinion. The Truth Initiative uses those businesses’ dollars, too, but to far more vengeful ends.


In 1998, a settlement in a case between the Big Five tobacco companies and the attorneys general of 46 states and five U.S. territories over smoking-related Medicaid costs, as well as the company's liability for death and disease, mandated payouts to individual states. It also founded the American Legacy Foundation (now the Truth Initiative) bequeathing it with $1.55 billion from the tobacco companies.

Stipulated in the agreement, however, was that the foundation was to focus on health rather than vilifying the individual companies. This was a challenge for the American Legacy Foundation, which found, in a revelation that should surprise no one, that teens don’t care much about their health but absolutely despise authority. Even today, many of the Truth Initiative’s truths—for example, that in 1989 one manufacturer thought about reaching consumers from ice cream trucks—come from a trove of internal memos, focus group videos, and corporate studies released to the public as part of the Master Settlement Agreement and supported by the Truth Initiative itself.


In 2001, the tobacco company Lorillard filed suit against the foundation for airing a radio ad in which a guy claiming to be a dog walker calls a real Lorillard employee and tries to sell him dog piss, claiming it went against the vilification clause. (Both cigarettes and pee contain urea, so the ad’s concession went.) Lorillard lost, and was absorbed by another company not long ago.

With all that money going around, sometimes the Truth Initiative loses track; in the mid-2000s the combination of an embezzling, charismatic IT guy and mismanagement resulted in a $3.4 million loss, which the company failed to report. Now, with a rebranding and a new CEO, it can get back to its real work: reminding teens that if they light up someone might be tempted to “Left Swipe Dat,” using puking unicorns to stop social smoking, paying licensing fees to Diplo, and being down for the struggle for racial justice—in that Kanye West sort of way.

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