A man named Craig walks into a convenience store. He serves as a vape company’s VP of marketing, and he has a mission: Armed with posters and a suitcase full of samples, he has come to convince unsuspecting retail employees to stock his brand’s “Depression Stick,” an e-cigarette that “can amplify feelings of depression and anxiety.” Truth in advertising, explains Craig.
Craig insists that he wants “to sell depression.” A cashier orders him to leave. It’s all captured on what appears to be a hidden camera.
Craig, however, is not real. Nor is his company. Nor is the the Depression Stick. The cashier, and many other cashiers with the misfortune to end up with Craig in their stores, have all been fooled—suckers!—by Truth Initiative, the influential nonprofit tobacco control organization that strives to rid society of nicotine dependence.
In short, Truth Initiative, a group that by name allegedly purports to tell the truth, created a fake vape company to advertise a fake product. During the process, the organization lied to the public and bothered people who likely had better things to deal with than Craig and his stunts.
The fake Depression Stick comes in all kinds of fake flavors with fake descriptors: “Melancholy Menthol”; “Citrus Sadness”; “Disappointment Mint.” The premise is not that you would vape “BubbleGlum” to become less glum. According to Truth, it’s simply an honest representation of what happens when you vape: You’re sad, so you vape, which makes you sadder, so you keep vaping.
The PR strategy of Depression Stick, according to a Truth press release, “follows the playbook of its e-cigarette competitors complete with kid-friendly flavors, aiming to reach and engage young people through influencer unboxings, TikTok takeovers, pop-up shops and bold neon advertising airing nationwide, including on a Times Square billboard.”
Here’s Craig haranguing influencers to peddle the product. Trying to persuade advertising executives to hop onboard. Accusing random Washington, DC pedestrians of being lobbyists. A commercial for Depression Stick even aired on September 19 during a football game between the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs.
It’s actually knee-jerk, panic-driven efforts like flavor bans that appear to be leading teens to smoke.
The campaign launched in mid-September and appears to be off to a good start, judging from the YouTube comments. “That salesman seems like a real sh*thead,” one person observed. “My favorite part was when they harassed random retail workers,” noted another.
It also immediately drew ire from tobacco harm reduction proponents and consumer advocates who view it as yet another scare tactic, reminiscent of drug war propaganda. Countless leading tobacco control and public health experts have warned about downplaying vaping’s significant success in helping adult smokers quit combustibles, and it is actually knee-jerk, panic-driven political efforts like flavor bans that appear to be leading teens to smoke instead of vape. Of course, none of that made it into the fake Truth campaign. Truth Initiative did not respond to Filter’s request for comment.
The Depression Stick schtick also arrives in the immediate aftermath of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) throwing out or denying the applications of millions of vaping products to remain on the market in the United States. The FDA is set to soon determine if the biggest players can continue to sell their products, as notable tobacco control experts plead with prohibition-minded groups not to interfere with the agency’s scientific review.
The whole campaign is part of a larger Truth Initiative effort called “It’s Messing with Our Heads,” which hinges on a recent Journal of the American Medical Association study that concluded youth depression and anxiety doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic. Truth Initiative is suggesting that teens dealing with mental health issues are turning to vaping products to deal with stress, thereby inadvertently exacerbating that stress. Yet per the organization’s own report, “it is unknown whether a causal relationship between nicotine and mental health conditions exist.” In that part, at least, it’s telling the truth.
By implying with no evidence that nicotine exacerbates conditions like depression, Truth Initiative seems to be doing more harm than good. One in four US adults live with some form of mental illness or substance use disorder, and this group smokes nearly 40 percent of all cigarettes smoked by adults. Meaning, the evidence suggests that people with mental health issues use nicotine because it helps them. They do not use nicotine because it makes them feel more depressed; they use because they are already depressed, and nicotine has a therapeutic element.
“This is not the first time they’ve got the direction of causality wrong.”
Truth Initiative is engaging in what has become common practice for anti-nicotine organizations: Disproportionately focusing on one demographic—the youths—and a drummed-up epidemic at the cost of relaying accurate information to adult consumers.
“Adults living with neurodiversity issues are more likely to smoke because nicotine helps them,” Dr. Charles Gardner, the CEO of INNCO, a global nonprofit that supports the rights and well-being of adults who use safer nicotine, told Filter.
“Nicotine is a psychoactive drug, like caffeine,” Gardner said. “Like caffeine, it increases alertness, focus, attention and memory. Paradoxically, unlike caffeine, nicotine also reduces stress, anxiety and depression. Countless studies show an ‘association’ between depression and nicotine use. Truth Initiative is using those studies to suggest that nicotine causes depression. This is not the first time they’ve got the direction of causality wrong.”
Are we going to allow, yet again, a baseless concern for the youth supersede harm reduction for the millions of Americans who smoke? Are we planning to ever accept that e-cigarettes are much less harmful than combustibles? Do vapers do not have real feelings, just as they do not really need or enjoy flavors?
Incredibly, the creative officer behind the campaign, Mo Said, explained to The Wall Street Journal that when he was growing up there were “reasons to quit” smoking. Like cancer. But now, “people think vapes are just diet cigarettes.” It’s hard to sell the idea that vaping “causes cancer but a little bit less,” he continued. “We needed a new reason for a new generation.” (E-cigarettes have not been determined to cause cancer.)
Apparently, the new generation doesn’t care about such a stodgy, buttoned-up health concern as cancer, though. Today’s youth have trendier concerns, like depression.
“We know from data that if you ask what are the things that young people are really concerned about right now,” Robin Koval, the CEO and president of Truth Initiative, told The Wall Street Journal that, “mental health goes right up to the top of the list.”
UPDATE 9/22/21: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misattributed a quote to Robin Koval, the CEO and president of Truth Initiative. It was stated by Mo Said, the chief creative officer of Mojo Supermarket, the creative agency behind the campaign.
Photograph via Maryland Department of Health