While it is easy to forget when Oregon is two years into dealing with Covid-19, before the pandemic Oregon was facing a different kind of epidemic brought about by the tobacco industry. A youth smoking epidemic driven by egregiously flavored tobacco products.
hero_image_alt_text===A graphic of candy and e-cigarette devices mixed together on a table
thumbnail_alt_text===A graphic of candy and e-cigarette devices mixed together on a table
As part of my work in the community, I have some samples of flavored tobacco products to use as examples to show elected officials, who are not often the targets of the sleek advertising campaigns from the tobacco industry, just what we are talking about. When my then 5-year-old came across the jar in my car he asked me if it was candy. That’s when this really campaign hit close to home. The tobacco industry is preying on our kids.
The 2020 Oregon Tobacco Facts, released by the Oregon Health Authority, shows that products with flavors are more popular among youth and young adults compared to older adults. Nearly 70% of Oregon youth tobacco users use flavored tobacco compared to 18% of adults over the age of 25 who use tobacco. E-cigarettes are available in thousands of youth appealing flavors, including fruit, candy, mint and menthol. The overwhelming majority of youth e-cigarette users report using flavored products. Mint and menthol flavored tobacco products are heavily marketed to kids, African Americans, and Latinx. Nearly two-thirds of high school students who use e-cigarettes use mint or menthol flavors. Menthol products, with their cooling and soothing effects, entice all their users, including kids. It literally makes the poison go down smoother. Nationally, more than half of all youth and young adult smokers smoke menthol cigarettes. This data supports what we have seen anecdotally, flavors are a key component for youth initiation of tobacco use.
We may not have the decades of science on e-cigarettes that we do on traditional cigarettes, because they haven’t been around long enough. But what we have seen is already enough to take swift action in public policy to prevent youth use. A growing number of local communities are taking action to protect kids by restricting the sale of all flavored tobacco products— including menthol in all locations. To ensure we don’t lose a new generation of kids to nicotine, the AHA is working in counties across the metro region to pass policy for the removal of all flavored tobacco products from the market. Kids will gravitate toward any flavors on the market if they are available. An exemption for 21 and over stores creates winners and losers for the sale of products that can kill half of its users.
Over a decade ago the federal government took action to remove flavored cigarettes from the market and they are primed to act again. But we shouldn’t wait for them. It is now time to update that law to reflect the new products on the market, and once again choose protecting our kids over profits.
The American Heart Association needs your help in getting local communities to take action. Keep an eye out for action alerts from us on when the ideal time to lend your voice, or reach out to become a more active part of our campaign. Our kids can’t wait.