This year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has procured the assistance of Marvel Comics, the creators of countless famous characters including Captain America, Spider Man, and the Hulk, to spread fear-mongering propaganda about e-cigarettes to the masses.
This promotion is a part of FDA’s “The Real Cost” initiative, a costly government program that was recently renewed with a $900 million budget to be spent over the next five years.
With Marvel’s help, the FDA has introduced Mind Control Menace, a storyline that follows two teenagers, Javier and Amy, as they seek to rid their town of an unknown plague. The plague, which appears in the form of green vapor, specifically targets high school students, turning them into zombies, effectuated with terrifyingly empty, pale-green eyes.
This “menace”, clearly representative of e-cigarettes, possesses nearly all of Amy and Javier’s peers until the motivated teens invent a device that allows them to see into the future. Amy and Javier show their zombified classmates what their futures will look like should they continue to succumb to the mind-controlling menace.
Ironically, the teens use of science to “save the day” is reminiscent of how e-cigarettes were invented. While many anti-vaping advocates like to claim that vaping was invented by big tobacco, this could not be further from the truth.
The first vapor device was invented in America in 1963, but it wasn’t until 2001, in Beijing, China, that the world’s first e-cigarette was created. Hon Lik, a Chinese pharmacist and heavy cigarette smoker, had recently lost his father to lung cancer and was determined to quit the deadly habit himself.
Lik invented a vaporization system that combined non-toxic aerosol with nicotine concentrate, creating a device that mimics the habitual nature of cigarette smoking while removing the thousands of chemicals and tar that cause cancer and other severe illnesses.
Hon Lik used science to “save the day” and while Marvel’s Mind Control Menace is pure fiction, Lik’s invention is very much real and has helped countless smokers quit cigarette use, not just saving the day, but saving their lives.
As the story continues, Amy and Javier lead their classmates in defeating the plague by simply yelling “No” at the “menace” of vaping. This “Just Say No” style of messaging is evocative of D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) programs, popularized in the 1980’s as a means of combatting drug use among youths.
The “Just Say No” strategy has been universally accepted as a failure, with data indicating that the D.A.R.E. program did little to nothing to combat substance abuse among teens. A 2009 mathematical review of 20 different scientific studies further reinforced the scope of this failure, revealing that teens who enrolled in the D.A.R.E. program were just as likely to engage in drug use as those who received no drug-abuse intervention.
If drug addiction and substance abuse could truly be overcome by simply saying “No” then drug addiction would not be a problem in the United States. Yet 21 million Americans have at least one addiction and only 10% of those with an addiction receive treatment.
This troubling statistic is largely due to the stigma that surrounds drug addiction. Even as scientists have long reached the consensus that addiction is a complex brain disorder with intricate behavioral components, many in the public still view addiction as a consequence of moral weakness and flawed character.
Messaging like Mind Control Menace further reinforces this stigma by telling America’s youth that nicotine addiction is something that can simply be overcome by standing tall and valiant, puffing out your chest, and courageously saying “No” to addiction. It is then easily inferred that anyone who falls victim to addiction is clearly not brave enough, or smart enough, to stand up to addiction. This obvious and dangerous instance of victim-blaming will only make the issue of addiction worse.
Mind Control Menace also fails to consider a key aspect of any comic book and movie; the villain is half the intrigue. While superheroes are household names in America, so are their archrivals. Marvel’s anti-vaping propaganda will only further the curiosity that youth have regarding vaping.
What FDA & Marvel forgot, or chose to ignore, is that the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey found curiosity to be the most common reason school-age kids cited for trying e-cigarettes. The more curious kids are about vaping, the more likely they are to try it. Promoting messaging that will undoubtedly increase curiosity around vaping is both foolish and dangerous and is entirely the wrong approach for keeping youth away from e-cigarettes.
Rather, FDA could consider another approach, one that would keep e-cigarettes out of the hands of children while being truthful with them about the harms and benefits that e-cigarettes have. E-cigarettes are tools that help smokers quit, not a “menace” that controls your mind. They are proven to be 95% less harmful than combustible cigarettes and are more than twice as effective at helping smokers quit than traditional nicotine replacement therapies like nicotine patches or gum. E-cigarettes should be promoted as a safer alternative to cigarettes and a way of helping those who can’t quit cigarettes, not as an alien fog that turns teenagers into zombies.
It is difficult to discern which aspect of Mind Control Menace is most nonsensical. Could it be the massive $900 million price tag? Could it be the foolish “Just Say No” messaging that stigmatized addiction? Or could it be the notion that this fear-mongering misinformation will keep any teenager, even just one single teen, from trying e-cigarettes? There truly isn’t a right answer.
E-cigarettes don’t require some lifesaving scientific invention that will help people quit using them; they are that lifesaving scientific invention. It’s time we start treating them as such.