At the checkout counter, the flavors are sweet and enticing: Banana Smash. Twisted Berry. Berry Honey. Cherry Dynamite.
They aren’t in the candy aisle but on the tobacco shelf, often sold in 99-cent two-pack mini-cigars or liquid cartridges for e-cigarettes.
While fewer young Americans are puffing on cigarettes, more teens are using flavored tobacco, typically by vaping with electronic cigarettes or smoking tiny cigars known as cigarillos.
This year, there’s a renewed push to banish flavored tobacco products, which health officials and others fear are luring the next generation of nicotine addicts by targeting teens and kids.
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The sweetened flavors are “a gateway to traditional cigarette smoking,” said Scott Gerbert, a wellness program director with the Alameda County Office of Education, who attended a recent anti-tobacco state Capitol rally with a handful of high school students from Berkeley and Fremont. Tobacco companies, he said, “are targeting young people with cherry, strawberry, piña colada flavors. … Gummi bears? That’s a youth-friendly flavor, not an adult-friendly flavor.”
Gerbert was among about 250 high school students and chaperones who attended the anti-tobacco rally, chanting slogans and carrying signs with messages such as “We want to see a new light, not a lighter” and “We want 7,700 flavors of ice cream, not tobacco!” The rally was part of national Kick Butts Day, co-sponsored by the California Youth Advocacy Network and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
In 2014, 73 percent of high school students and 56 percent of middle school students who used tobacco products in the past 30 days reported using a flavored tobacco product, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Wheatland High School student Angelina Hom, 15, who belongs to a campus group called SOWHAT (Students Of Wheatland High Against Tobacco), said she’s seen the negative impacts of tobacco firsthand in family members and hopes more of her peers get the message to avoid tobacco.
Convenience stores near her Northern California school have prominent displays of brightly colored, fruity-flavored tobacco products positioned close to the checkout counter, she said. “You go to pay for your food and there’s a wall full of of tobacco and cigarettes. It targets kids into thinking it’s cool.”
E-cigarettes are the most commonly used tobacco product among middle and high school teens in California. An estimated 217,000 Californians between the ages of 12 and 17 currently smoke traditional cigarettes or e-cigarettes, according to state health officials.
In stores, although tobacco products by law must be behind glass, it’s not unusual to find Swisher Sweets, candy-flavored cigarillos sold in two-packs for less than a dollar, sitting near candy bars and snacks, at eye level of young customers.
“Having it advertised as candy unlocks the door to the world of addiction,” said shopper Jenni Richardson, 24, in a midtown Sacramento convenience store where Swisher Sweets sit directly above the ice cream freezer case. A self-described recovering heroin addict, Richardson said tobacco products are dangerously addictive, noting it was far easier for her to quit narcotics than nicotine.
Last summer, the growth in e-cigarette use helped prompt California to toughen state tobacco laws, raising the minimum age for legally buying cigarettes and cigars from 18 to 21, the first change since tobacco control laws went into effect 144 years ago. Also for the first time, those laws now apply to e-cigarettes, which have become hugely popular for their myriad fruit and candy-scented flavors, with names such as Watermelon Krush, Apple Pie a la Mode and Blueberry Cotton Candy.
Some counties have banned all sales of flavored tobacco, including Yolo County, which prohibits sales in the county’s unincorporated areas, starting May 1. The intent was to deter use by youths, said Keri Hess, the county’s tobacco prevention youth coordinator.
“Lots of kids who use e-cigarettes would never dream of trying a regular cigarette because they say it tastes gross. They know the hazards of regular cigarettes and tobacco, but they don’t recognize the health hazards of e-cigarettes,” Hess said.
The state’s crackdown came as illegal sales of tobacco to minors were up last year by more than a third from 2015, according to the state Department of Public Health’s annual survey, which took place before the legal age was changed. Using teenage decoys trying to buy smokes, the annual survey found that 10.3 percent of 793 stores sold tobacco to underage buyers, the highest rate in eight years.
Citing research that shows brain development continues until around age 25, state health officials say nicotine is a “highly addictive neurotoxin” that can permanently damage adolescent and young adult brains.
“The younger people are when they start smoking or using nicotine, the more likely they are to become addicted,” said State Public Health Officer Dr. Karen Smith during a news conference last summer. Every year in California, she noted, 34,000 people die of tobacco-related diseases.
She said the surge of teens vaping with e-cigarettes is no accident, given the “aggressive marketing” and the proliferation of gadgets and flavors by tobacco companies. Calling them “enticing gateway products,” Smith said e-cigarettes are “fueling the addiction” to nicotine.
Since 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned the sale of cigarettes with fruit and candy flavors, part of federal efforts to reduce tobacco addiction among youths. More recently, the FDA is focusing on cigars and cigarillos (mini-cigars). In December, it issued warning letters to four tobacco companies, including Swisher International Inc., maker of Swisher Sweets, for selling cigars in “youth-appealing” flavors, such as grape, wild cherry and strawberry.
If the companies don’t take action, they could face civil penalties, criminal prosecution and seizure of products, according to the FDA.
“Flavored cigarettes appeal to kids and disguise the bad taste of tobacco, but they are just as addictive as regular tobacco products and have the same harmful health effects,” said Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, in a statement. He said continued bans on flavored tobacco are essential to “protect future generations from a lifetime of addiction.”
To students at the recent state Capitol rally, the brightly colored packaging and sweetened flavors are “like candy,” enticing teens and kids to get hooked on nicotine at an early age, said Naphatsorn Kaewwanna, 18, a high school senior with the Asian American Drug Abuse Program in Los Angeles County.
“We should put a stop to it,” she said.
Editor’s note: This story has been changed to correct the spelling of Scott Gerbert.