Anti-smoking ads traumatized me for life

Maybe we shouldn't be showing these terrifying ads to children

A television.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Naypong/iStock, jessicahyde/iStock, Screenshot/YouTube)

Like many people my age, I grew up on a diet of television that was definitely far scarier than I should have been watching at age, oh, 11. Are You Afraid of the Dark? Goosebumps. Courage the Cowardly Dog.

But the most terrifying things on TV, by far, were the anti-smoking ads in between shows.

Imagine the withered lungs of a smoker gasping on your television. Or what happens to blood when tobacco is inhaled. Or a more metaphorical horror — like a fish hook looped through a cheek, or a small demonic man yanking at a mouth. Whatever approach the ad took, it was bound to be deeply and weirdly and uniquely horrifying, and I could never jump to the remote to turn it off in time.

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There is ample evidence that scaring the daylight out of children and preteens (and adults) in this manner works. For one, I've never tried a cigarette. For another, the medical journal The Lancet discovered that a 2013 ad by the CDC might have ultimately caused some 100,000 Americans to give up smoking permanently.

But setting aside the public good that comes from discouraging tobacco use, anti-smoking ads are all kinds of messed up. Sometime around 1997, when Rachael Leigh Cook famously destroyed a kitchen in the nightmare fodder that was "This is Your Brain on Drugs," a particularly effective aesthetic for public health announcements took off. Anti-smoking advertisements began to take cues from horror films, using unnatural or murky lighting, distorted sounds, and jarring or disgusting images to make a lasting impression, particularly on young viewers. Being one once myself, I can attest that whenever such an advert would come on after a cereal or Lego commercial, you couldn't help but stop, pay attention to the TV, and, disoriented, wonder, what is this…?

As addiction has evolved, so too have the ads. Today, with smoking down among teens, vaping is the threat targeted by public health agencies. Although the ads in 2017 and 2018 don't have quite the same David Cronenberg-esque flavor as their predecessors, they are products of the same philosophy of terrifying children after their parents have gone to bed. The vape-mouthed teens in the ad below are definitely like some sort of monsters out of Black Mirror.

Some researchers have argued that the scare tactics used in anti-smoking campaigns cause unnecessary distress, to which I say: well, yes, probably. But I have to admit, there is something satisfying about the fact that younger generations are still being traumatized by nicotine commercials on the CW or TeenNick. It's like a rite of passage, even: If I can't unsee this, neither should you.

But here's some advice, from one (former) preteen to another: Keep the remote control close and remember you can always leave the light on.

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.