The infection of “Truth” doesn’t hurt, it just spreads like a swarm

Watch the invasion of anti-Big Tobacco submerge your scene as teens spray colorful graffiti on garbage cans, as a plague of INFKT team members denounce gruesome facts about cigarettes, and notable DJs spin and “infect” the crowd with hip hop and break beats, while a group of b-boys swirl in the center. The 2002 INFKT truth tour launched in Washington Square Park, New York, this summer, hosted by BET’s Big Tigger and MTV VJ La La, with a lineup of deft and agile artists, such as The X-Ecutioners, Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC, the Rock Steady Crew with Crazy Legs and graf legend, Lee Quinones, painting a graffiti-induced “TRUTH” piece on the tour’s orange van. Stopping in seven cities-NY, LA, ATL, Chicago, ATL, Kansas City, Seattle and Denver-it will continue to spread into several nationwide festivals, college events, malls, beaches, movie premieres, concerts…

The truth campaign made its start with harrowing commercials broadcasting, in a direct, clever fashion, the many detrimental materials in cigarettes and the manipulative marketing techniques of the tobacco industry. Funded by the American Legacy Foundation (ALF), which was created by a Master Settlement Agreement (M.S.A.) between 46 states-a $206 billion agreement-the campaigns tap into the teenage market of 12-17 year olds by delivering the “truth,” portraying rebellious-looking, multi-ethnic teens bluntly affirming shocking facts about tobacco products to counteract what Big Tobacco is trying to sell: a product that is supposed to avow a look of independence and defiance. After all, the transition into adulthood-adolescence-is indeed a baffling search for identity and a quest for control and expression.

Truth seems to want to provide an alternative to youths seeking that innate desire to express themselves and help them make informed decisions about tobacco use. However, are these campaigns a propagandist tool telling the youth it’s bad to smoke-which should be avoided in a liberal society-or a benevolent social act aimed towards the survival of the next generations and the admonition of Big Tobacco’s mendacious promotions?

“The tobacco companies are marketing a harmful product and we’re just marketing the truth,” explains truth youth marketer Tasneem Nanji. A fellow marketer, Amanda Taylor, elaborates on the issue: “We’re anti-lies, not anti-smokers, the truth just needs to be told; the first time I saw the truth commercials, I thought, “wow, that shit is real!” Nanji also thinks that the number of teenage smokers in the U.S. is appalling. “There are 3 million smokers between the ages of 12-17,” she says, “and many are thinking they’re rebelling, due to the marketing techniques of the industry.”

So Big Tobacco is selling an image, an image of rebellion and liberty, that American teenagers especially cherish very dearly because of a traditional value of freedom signatured in this country.

“But, this tour can provide options to people,” says La La. “It lets you know that smoking is not the best way to go, Big Tobacco tells you it is, then you can go home and make your own decision.” Maybe this can be an alternative, a cool vibe, people congregating for a festive symposium, engaging in artistic expression while raising awareness.

The alternative is short-lived though since many in the crowd of hundreds that showed up always have the opportunity to smoke, but the movement is still ferociously in the face of teens, in their TV and magazines everyday, cunningly discharging info.

Lee, in the midst of signing autographs and spraying his tag on teens’ skateboards, comments on the presence of art on the tour: “Every culture and generation has the art it deserves; now, the youth here will look more to graffiti ’cause it’s so right up in their front door, they’re connected and identify to it; it’s a way to outreach a vast amount of teens the truth campaigns are aiming at. This is a benevolent consideration of our younger generation, ’cause, as corny as it seems, they’re tomorrow’s people.” Lee’s currently thinking about developing a book on his lifetime artwork, wants to do a retro at the Whitney Museum in New York and is considering scriptwriting for film.

The X-Ecutioners, who just dropped a new album, Built From Scratch, and are soon touring with Eminem, did a fierce performance of turntable artistry. Member Rob Swift mentions, “This is a positive promotion of health consciousness and DJing as a growing art form that will continue to influence people.”

In the meantime, young heads in the park still do their thing, some reading a book and smoking, others kicking a soccer ball around, a cigarette dangling from their mouths. Does Big Tobacco really lie to its consumers? Smoking can be a way of self-expression, but maybe truth wants to show that the industry is abusing the image of rebelliousness. Though ALF conducts research on the effectiveness of the campaigns, measuring the amount of young smokers is still ambiguous. Yet 75 percent of 12 to 17-year-olds are aware of truth ads and the content they display.

“We’re just babies now,” says Taylor, “but we can ‘infect’ the whole U.S.; I can see an explosion in a few years, an awakening for everybody.” Perhaps this is an even bigger movement, an anti-capitalistic revolution that can overthrow a billion dollar industry…or maybe I’m being a bit too optimistic for the truth. Log on to for more info

Omar Sommereyns can be reached at