A terrible menace has descended on a small town.
It appears to be a plague, an ever-spreading green vapor that targets high school students and transforms them into zombies. Soon, half the students in the school are walking around with frighteningly blank, pale-green eyes.
“No one noticed at first,” the comic reads in the beginning. “The changes were subtle.” So subtle, in fact, that a basketball player emanates billowing clouds of green gas from his body as his teammate, terrified, looks up at him from the floor. It only gets worse. A girl who “usually maps out her whole year before breakfast” has no summer plans. The basketball player can’t make a shot.
Oblivious to this looming threat, two young scientists in the school lab—Javier and Amy—have meanwhile invented a device to see into the future.
The green vapor spreads. Eventually, a group of possessed students corner Amy and Javier in a parking lot, as the pair figure out that their classmates must be “being controlled.” Then Amy gets captured. What does this menace want? To control first the town, followed by the world—“until every teen was in its thrall.”
It’s not until Javier uses his device to help everyone see into their future—and the “true cost” of the “malevolent chaos” afflicting them—that they fight back and defeat the foe.
“If you vape, nicotine addiction can take control of you,” warns a final panel. The repercussions of seeing your future laid out before your eyes are not further explored.
This is The Mind Control Menace. It’s a fresh title from Marvel Comics and the newest campaign from “The Real Cost” platform—an educational program formed by the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products in 2014.
In case the metaphor remains unclear, Dan Buckley, the president of Marvel Entertainment, told Ad Age that “as a brand, we recognize the impact of the FDA’s mission to combat nicotine and the effect it can have on youth, and we are honored to contribute to such an important campaign to raise awareness about the addictive nature of vaping.”
The comic is a parody of itself. Tobacco harm reductionists, consumers activists and adult vapers immediately condemned it as ridiculous—an absurd attempt to scare kids with echoes of the Reefer Madness messaging of the 1930s, DARE and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” PR blast of the 1980s, and NIDA’s “drugs hijack the brain” follow-up.
Critics are drawing parallels those with those earlier initiatives, which exaggerated harms, criminalized substance use, and misinformed the public about perceived dangers, all while failing to impact demand.
“I cannot believe we are witnessing a supposedly scientific organization going all-in on moral panic activism with homage to Reefer Madness,” Clive Bates, a public health consultant and former director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) in the United Kingdom, told Filter. “They seem to be promoting some weird sort of ‘demonic possession’ model of addiction … It would be a laughable attempt to spread alarm, but I am pretty certain it will fall flat among those at risk just because it has no contact points with reality.”
Nobody concerned with public health wants to promote youth nicotine vaping—although doing it as a replacement for smoking would be a win. Rates of youth vaping during the supposed “epidemic” have declined lately—and significantly, youth smoking continued to fall even as the vaping rate was rising. Some high schools have nonetheless implemented drug war-style policies like nicotine testing.
“Exaggerating harms is pointless, because teenagers have access to the internet and can find the truth.”
“Teen vaping should be discouraged,” Dr. Charles Gardner, the CEO of the International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organizations (INNCO), told Filter, adding that the Mind Control Menace campaign is likely to fail.
“You know what would work?” he continued. “Talk to teenagers as if they are rational and mature human beings. That’s how they want to see themselves. Infantilizing them is likely to backfire. Exaggerating harms is pointless, because they have access to the internet and can find the truth.”
“The FDA Center for Tobacco Products is committed to preventing youth vaping experimentation in the United States,” an FDA spokesperson told Filter. “Several known and suspected carcinogens such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde have been identified in e-cigarette aerosols, and many [electronic nicotine delivery systems] contain nicotine, which can disrupt normal adolescent brain development. The FDA’s research with youth who are open to using or already experimenting with vaping products indicates they do not understand the risks involved. Some don’t even know nicotine is present and, therefore, may underestimate the risks associated with vaping.”
“The FDA carefully selected Disney and Marvel to partner with and to co-develop the comic book,” the spokesperson continued. “Comic books are highly effective ways to engage with this audience. On average, teens are 251 percent more likely to have read a comic book two-to-three times a month in the past year.”
The nonprofits and government agencies in at the forefront of the anti-vaping crusade keep resorting, embarrassingly, to the language and tropes they believe to be popular among teenagers. Just last week, for example, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids hosted its Roast of Big Tobacco, a mishmash production including Jackass-style imagery, and featuring podcast hosts and comedians making inaccurate claims masked as bad jokes—like how it was Big Tobacco that invented vaping to hook a new generation onto nicotine.
In reality, it was invented by Hon Lik, a Chinese pharmacist, who watched his father die from complications of smoking and didn’t want to meet the same fate.
We are just now taking the first tentative steps toward fixing the consequences of the War on Drugs that President Richard Nixon spearheaded in the 1960s, with states legalizing cannabis and focusing on repairing the racial injustices that prohibition enabled. As Ethan Nadelmann, the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, has pointed out on Twitter, “the War on Drugs was justified as essentially one big Child Protection Act … Now we see the same rhetoric & mentality in mainstream #tobaccocontrol. Beware!!”
The most factual representation contained in The Mind Control Menace probably concerns the kind of knee-jerk reaction so typical of official responses to nicotine vaping.
When Javier and Amy initially confront the green vapor, they look at it for a moment and are terrified to the point of incoherency. “Maybe run now—figure it out later?”
Update, April 7, 2021: This article was updated to include the FDA’s comment, which was received after publication.
DPA has previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship. Both INNCO and The Influence Foundation have received grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World.