Video Games and Instagram: The FDA’s Newest – and Ironic – Anti-Vape Tools for Teens

Tuesday, The FDA launched an anti-vaping campaign similar to the all-too-familiar anti-smoking campaigns of old. ‘The Real Cost’ is the long-standing tobacco awareness program by the federal agency. But, as of this week, their materials include targeted messages about the dangers of vapes as well. The agency uses a browser-based video game and Instagram ads to reach a teenage audience, which I find ironic to discuss addictive substances. I took a look at some of these materials to see how the rhetoric is applied.

A Deadly Game

The site whatsinavape.com subjects visitors to a clunky walk through a stereotypical basement room. Your character is a teenage amateur sleuth-type, who walks around the room from a computer with a few clickable files about the relative harm of vapes, to a corkboard with strings pinned all over, connecting indiscernible pieces of paper. Clicking on any of these ‘pieces of evidence,’ as the game makes them out to be, shows a fact about some of the chemicals found in vape juice and the potential hazards of using vapes.

Gamifying the experience and making the ‘protagonist’ a teenager is an obvious attempt to captivate that demographic. And why wouldn’t the FDA target teens? According to another recent press release from the agency, teen vaping is ‘an epidemic.’ Commissioner Scott Gottlieb used that term no fewer than 3 times in his speech about the problem just last week. The site’s game even uses that term. It’s a terrifying term. It’s a call to action.

And while the FDA is cracking down on vendors and manufacturers to ensure vapes don’t end up in the hands of teens, is epidemic really the right word? Or is it a scare tactic? According to CDC data, vaping among 13-18 year olds has declined steadily between the years 2015-2017. The FDA and its related sites spin the numbers, reporting the estimated 2 million teen vape users in the US. That number is the lowest we’ve seen since the ‘worst offender’ (Juul) has been on the market, and since the FDA began regulatory authority over vapes in the first place.

Social Stigma

Social media posts on the campaign’s Instagram include warning videos about the ‘dangers of vaping.’ A particular video displays the insides of blood vessels and lungs with what look like parasitic worms, and then the narrator says, “it’s not a parasite.” The narrator does describe a few key concerns in using vapes – inhaling the dangerous chemical, formaldehyde, for instance.

What is conveniently left out of that information, however, is that formaldehyde is also found in combustible cigarettes, along with 7000+ other carcinogens. Truly, the FDA’s ‘anti-tobacco’ campaign including vapes could easily transition into simply an ‘anti-nicotine’ campaign, and go after all offenders equally. The social media posts targeting teen vape use have one underlying point: Nicotine is bad for brain development. All their other information about the chemicals in vapes that harm the lungs is far from new.

Part of the Problem

Combustible cigarettes have taken a number of beatings by targeted awareness about how harmful their chemicals are to the lungs. Indeed, the relative terribleness of cigarettes led exactly to the development of technologies like vapes in the first place. Their ‘epidemic’ proportion of use by youth certainly cannot be wholly blamed on manufacturers.

In fact, Gottlieb himself acknowledged in his same speech that perhaps, if the FDA had not given vape companies until 2022 to get their market and advertising research to the agency, the issue may have been lessened. The FDA is now eating their original timeline, and are overcorrecting to address what is a media-hyped, ignorance-driven, and fundamentally-misunderstood problem.

Retailers should not sell vapes to minors, since they are technically ‘tobacco products’ by FDA classification. The extant tobacco rules already govern vapes, and their relative dangers are already well documented as dangers in cigarettes. Tobacco flavored juice is not for everyone. The sense memory may even drive some back to smoking. None of this is new. If kids are buying apple flavored vapes because they don’t understand what they’ve purchased in the first place, that is far from the responsibility of a product manufacturer, like Juul Labs, to correct.

And, Yet…

Despite that, Juul Labs has announced it will launch a $30 million dollar awareness campaign itself for youth education. A number of ‘kid-friendly’ flavors have been taken off market, and vapes are increasingly becoming more conflated with the very thing they were designed to combat: cigarette smoking. I blame ignorance. I blame misinformation. I do not blame ingenuity and attempted innovation to reduce the historically terrible health effects of cigarette smoking.

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