Joseph Hart 11 August 2023


Every dog has its day. For the Truth Initiative, that day was in the early 2000s when they arguably played a part in reducing smoking among the US youth with a series of hard-hitting ads. But since then, they’ve been acting like a bar room drunk, unable to tell enemies from friends. 

The well-capitalised non-profit has lately become fixated on nicotine pouches, continuing its recent history of spreading misinformation about alternative smoking products through a series of social media ads and articles. It’s time to clap back.

What is the Truth Initiative?

The Truth Initiative is a US non-profit organisation whose stated mission is to “achieve a culture where young people reject smoking, vaping, and nicotine.”

The group’s origin story starts with the outcome of a civil lawsuit against prominent tobacco companies in the 90s. In short, Big Tobacco caused so much destruction to public health that they had to write some equally big apology checks. 

The American Legacy Foundation got its hands on this money. Later, they changed their name to the Truth Initiative, and now they have assets totalling over $1bn with an annual budget of just south of $100m.

According to company filings, their CEO takes home $1m annually. They’ve also raked in over $75m from sales of assets in both 2019 and 2021 and earn around $17m from their various investments each year.

a sign forbidding smoking attached to a wall
Photo by Erik Mclean on

Anti-tobacco advocacy is big business. 

Why the Truth Initiative is a joke

Aside from the apparent lack of self-awareness about using the word “Truth” in your name while engaging in Orwellian misinformation campaigns, there are several other issues with the Truth Initiative.

To continue the analogy of the blinkered public house drunk, the Truth Initiative are impervious to reason. Despite scientific study after scientific study showing that alternative nicotine products reduce health risks associated with smoking, they seem unmoved. At best, they just handwave anything that counters their narrative as the work of nefarious Big Tobacco forces.

This phenomenon is not unique to the Truth Initiative. It’s present across large swathes of academia, NGOs, and other ostensibly science-driven bodies. As the old Upton Sinclair saw goes, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” However, one section on their website is particularly staggering. On the subject of harm reduction, they state, “We reject this narrative for what it is, a cynical attempt by commercial interests to protect and grow their profits.” 

Harm reduction policy has its roots in Liverpool during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. The concept combined compassion and realism to tackle the spread of infectious diseases through needle sharing. Instead of shaming and treating people with drug addiction as criminals, harm reduction advocates set up needle exchanges. It was effective in reducing the spread of AIDS.

Since then, these principles have been applied to various social issues, such as alcohol abuse and prostitution. Nicotine alternative products are another form of harm reduction. They help people stop smoking cigarettes by offering a safer alternative. 

The Truth Initiative is so fixated on tobacco companies that they cannot see harm reduction for what it is: an effective tool for reducing adverse health outcomes. Pouring millions of dollars into anti-vaping and nicotine pouch campaigns is a betrayal of their roots.  

So, what’s going on here?

It would be easy to say that the Truth Initiative is drunk on power. Their hardline and Puritan stance on harm-reduction products suggests a creepy desire for control over others. But I believe their heart is in the right place, no matter how misguided they are.

When I spoke to Professor Karl Fagerstrom this year, he made an interesting point about anti-tobacco activism. To paraphrase the esteemed scientist, these groups exist to solve a problem. Their salaries and funding rely on presenting that problem as urgent. I think this pattern is evident in the case of the Truth Initiative.

, The (Ministry of) Truth Initiative Have Nicotine Pouches in Their Crosshairs, The Daily Pouch

As youth smoking rates nosedived, The Truth Initiative had a choice: obsolescence or find a new target to wage war against. So they went after e-cigarettes for a bit, and now they want to get their teeth into nicotine pouches. 

While the Truth Initiative is US-based, their propaganda, jaundiced research, and willful ignorance about harm-reduction research reach the UK and European shores via social media. Rejecting harm reduction out of hand shows how unserious these people are about public health. 

Telling people to “just stop smoking” isn’t a strategy. Organisations like the Truth Initiative love to claim without evidence that their expensive ad campaigns have helped reduce smoking rates. However, they rarely acknowledge the instrumental role of nicotine pouches and other alternatives in bringing down those numbers in places like Sweden.

The Truth Initiative wants to control the narrative and the information, regardless of veracity. Let’s make them accountable.