Truth-telling, trust and e-cigarettes

Truth-telling, trust and e-cigarettes

Headshot of Dana Scully from The X-Files, with caption "MULDER, THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE, BUT SO ARE LIES."

Lange, M. (1994, February 11). The X-Files. Young at Heart. 20th Century Fox Television.

It should go without saying that public health institutions and researchers have an obligation to tell the truth. In principle, there aren’t many stakeholders in e-cigarette research who would argue otherwise. But questions about whose truth and how information about e-cigarettes should be communicated have been highly controversial.

Partly this is because e-cigarettes haven’t been around long (relatively speaking), and research takes time.

But while influential figures on all sides of the e-cigarette debate in the US have increasingly acknowledged a body of evidence that vaping is less harmful than combustible cigarettes, the US public has increasingly come to believe the opposite. It’s unlikely that this outcome results from even-handed cautions against jumping to conclusions. People have been inundated with a particular message about the current state of research on vaping, and that message is false. Continue reading

We’re all freaks here: Queer community, punk identity & cigarettes

We’re all freaks here: Queer community, punk identity & cigarettes

We're all freaks here. ('Identity', X-Ray Spex)

Today I’m interviewing Tabatha, a young woman in her 20s with a cloud of curly red-tinted hair, who wears a jacket and skirt with combat boots and a septum ring. Her nails are painted in elaborate two-tone patterns, and her voice is low and husky. Tabatha identifies strongly with the Bay Area punk community, describing the punk ethos as come-as-you-are, a place for “freaks.” “We’re all freaks here,” she says.

Tabatha also identifies as: queer, sexually compatible with all genders but homoromantic, femme, cis, and a woman of color. She describes herself as “white passing” and says that she is privy to racist conversations among white people who assume that she is white. Similarly, she says that she is not perceived as queer as often as women who look more butch; she “passes” as straight, and finds herself reminding straight people that they’re talking to someone queer.

In the queer community, though, she says being femme can be hard to navigate. She’s in a double bind where she’s seen as not-really-femme if she makes the first move to initiate a relationship — yet since she is also seen as not-really-queer, other women don’t make the first move either. In that context, passing as an insider can leave her caught between worlds.

Tabatha started smoking when she was 12. She likes the aesthetics of cigarettes, and says that the smokers of her 12-year-old imagination were artists, writers, musicians and thinkers. Romantic outsiders, people who did not expect to live long. She says she did not expect to live long either. Continue reading

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Digital media & critical public health

A grad student at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, Sharon O’Hara, interviewed our center director Tamar Antin about digital innovation and public health. Sharon then put together the great video below using iMovie.

Pretty interesting to see the combination of paths to exploring digital media engagement with public health topics here: both through the discussion in the video of the center’s work, and through the interviewer’s hands-on engagement with creating her own digital media artifact.


Social Media Interview with Tamar Antin from S O’Hara on Vimeo.

Another ‘ugly truth’ ad

Another ‘ugly truth’ ad

One of our first interview respondents, Jovante*, a 19-year-old African American artist, mentioned this ad from the ugly truth campaign (“the nation’s largest smoking prevention campaign for youth and young adults“):

For Jovante, this ad was suspicious. He thought it was over the top, did not make sense, and that it suggested ulterior motives on the part of the people behind it. Although the ad’s explicit message is anti-smoking, Jovante felt that its effect on some young people might be “the exact opposite,” especially in light of his broader sense of membership in a group that has been exploited and marginalized:

“They would rather we smoke tobacco and kill ourselves, because they get money from it.”


So then today I came across another ad from the ugly truth campaign. Unlike the ‘cat pee’ ad, I’d never seen this one before:


“This is from Big Tobacco’s files. It’s a plan to sell cigarettes to gays and homeless people, and they called it ‘Project Scum’… And the ones on the left are just some of the ways Big Tobacco labeled African Americans.”

I wondered what Jovante would think of it. Seems like he would find it more credible.

Scanning this working paper by Deborah Lupton (thanks Tamar!) on the use of disgust in public health campaigns, I’m struck by how the first ad plays to 3 out of 4 kinds of disgust described in the paper… There’s “animal reminder disgust”, “matter out of place disgust” and “liminality disgust”, all in one super disgusting ad.

The fourth disgust-egory is “moral disgust,” and maybe that’s what the second ad appeals to. But unlike the examples in the paper, it’s not moral disgust aimed at people who use cigarettes. Instead, the target is marketing tactics.

Big difference in how these two different kinds of messages may affect people who are already dealing with stigma and marginalization in other parts of their lives.

*’Jovante’ is a pseudonym