FDA's New Anti-Vaping PSA, 'The Real Cost,' Looks Like a Marvel Trailer

Well, that backfired.

Officials at the US Food and Drug Administration probably weren’t trying to make e-cigarettes look super cool, but that’s exactly what they did.

In a public service announcement video released on Monday by the FDA’s anti-vaping campaign, called “The Real Cost,” teens rip their vapes and appear to acquire bizarre parasites that migrate and ripple beneath their skin, burrowing deep into their bodies’ tissues and organs. And while the video’s voiceover makes it clear that these visualizations are meant to symbolize serious health costs associated with vaping, these visual effects end up looking more like Venom’s transformation than deadly health consequences.

Folks at the FDA are clearly worried about the recent uptick in the numbers of young people who vape, going so far as to call the trend an epidemic. While e-cigarettes may have initially come onto the scene to provide cigarette smokers with a safer alternative, they’ve become their own trend, especially among teens, many of whom have never smoked a cigarette. And while the new PSA appears to be aimed at teens who may not realize that vaping is not totally safe, its tone is simply…off.

The FDA's anti-vaping PSA may have missed the mark. It looks more like a Marvel trailer than a scary warning.

YouTube/ The Real Cost

Of course, the true power of a government-sponsored PSA is hard to gauge. Anyone who remembers the Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s famous “Your Brain on Drugs” PSA knows that these efforts are somewhat laughable, bordering on self-parody. Over 30 years later, people are still making fun of the sizzling egg that’s meant to symbolize a person’s brain on drugs (they never specify which drugs).

But the FDA may have learned some lessons since then, as The Real Cost campaign touches on some of the actual health hazards of vaping: exposure to acrolein and formaldehyde, as well as nicotine’s effects on the brain. So perhaps this PSA could be more effective than past efforts, packaging real scientific information in a way that’s easier to digest.

When you visit The Real Cost’s website, which most teens this campaign targets almost certainly will not do, the odd aesthetic choices continue. Except, in this case, they may be a bit more effective at stoking psychological terror. The caption, “NICOTINE CHANGES THE WAY YOUR BRAIN WORKS,” accompanies an image of a brain dangling by wires, looking like something straight out of Silent Hill:

If you're trying to scare teens, this creepy-ass image may be a little more effective.


In the end, though, does scaring people away from doing drugs really ever work? Sure, this PSA has some real information, but it’s presented in such a clearly biased way that it could be easily seen as unreliable. Instead of employing fear tactics, public health officials should seek to give young people the full scope of information on drugs. Resources like Erowid and the pharmacologists’ guide for teens, Buzzed, provide comprehensive facts about drugs — both the good and the bad — in a conversational way that young people can trust. But hey, at least the FDA is making a new meme that today’s teens can mock when they grow up.

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