Opinion

Tobacco companies target kids. Will our leaders stand up to them?

Time to snuff out flavored tobacco? This is what standing-room-only crowd heard from Sacramento City Council

The Sacramento City Council will vote on whether to outlaw the sale of hookah, vape cartridges, menthol cigarettes and other forms of flavored tobacco after a unanimous council vote October 23, 2018.
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The Sacramento City Council will vote on whether to outlaw the sale of hookah, vape cartridges, menthol cigarettes and other forms of flavored tobacco after a unanimous council vote October 23, 2018.

Tobacco companies killed 100 million people during the 20th century, according to the World Health Organization. They could kill up to a billion people in the 21st century unless we relegate tobacco addiction to the ash bucket of history.

Tonight, the Sacramento City Council has an opportunity to help end Big Tobacco’s reign of death. By banning flavored tobacco, councilmembers can help nip a killer industry’s next generation strategy in the bud.

Full disclosure: I despise tobacco companies and have enthusiastically worked against them because, like many Americans, I’ve seen what tobacco does to people.

My grandma always had a Pall Mall cigarette between her lips. Her decades of addiction ended with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. It didn’t kill her, but it greatly increased her suffering.

This story isn’t unique. Future civilizations will wonder why we allowed tobacco companies to kill so many people for so long.

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The good news is that decades of efforts to highlight smoking’s dangers – along with restrictions on advertising – worked. The percentage of American adults who smoke decreased from roughly 40 percent in the 1960s to 14 percent in 2018. But after decades of decline, youth tobacco use is rising thanks to candy-flavored tobacco products.

Criticize e-cigarettes on social media and you’ll likely find yourself swarmed by their militant supporters. They use two main arguments to defend the product: health and freedom.

First, they argue that e-cigarettes save lives. And there’s no doubt that some smokers have embraced vaping as an alternative to smoking. Here’s the problem: The Food and Drug Administration has not approved e-cigarettes for nicotine cessation. In addition, e-cigarettes contain ultrafine particles, heavy metals and lung-irritating chemicals.

“People need to understand that e-cigarettes are potentially dangerous to your health,” said Dr. Michael Blaha, director of clinical research at the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease, in an online guide called “5 Truths You Need to Know About Vaping.” “You’re exposing yourself to all kinds of chemicals that we don’t yet understand and that are probably not safe.”

Once the health arguments fail, e-cigarette proponents shift to the freedom argument. They say adults should be able to do as they please. In a state where you can walk into a store and buy marijuana, why ban e-cigs?

Answer: Flavored tobacco targets kids – and addiction is the opposite of freedom. It’s the latest chapter in Big Tobacco’s long history of attempts to lure kids.

Teen tobacco use is soaring. In 2018, one out of five high school students reported using e-cigarettes. The use of any tobacco product by high school students grew 38 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

E-cigarettes aren’t an off-ramp for adults. They’re an on-ramp for a new generation of nicotine addicts.

This may explain why Altria, Philip Morris’ parent company, invested nearly $13 billion in Juul, the e-cigarette maker favored by teens. A recent study found that teens who vape are four times more likely to start smoking cigarettes. Kids find cigarettes disgusting, but that can change once their young brains get hooked on nicotine through enticing flavors like bubble gum, mango and “unicorn puke.”

Targeting kids is nothing new for tobacco companies. Long before the Joe Camel cartoon, Fred Flintstone and Santa Claus smoked in tobacco ads. Back then, cigarette companies often promoted smoking with false health claims. For example, grandma’s Pall Malls were marketed as an antidote to a fictional malady called “throat scratch.”

Today’s tobacco companies use candy flavors instead of cartoons. They promote a “safe alternative” instead of “throat scratch.”

So, nothing’s changed. You still can’t trust tobacco companies.

The City Council should approve the ban without delay, and the California State Legislature should pass Senate Bill 38 to ban flavored tobacco across the state.

Will these bans hurt vaping businesses that have sprung up to take advantage of the e-cigarette craze? Yes, and that’s a tough break. But hopefully California’s merchants can find something better to sell than a nefarious addiction that threatens the lungs, brains and lives of a new generation.

Gil Duran is California opinion editor of The Sacramento Bee

Gil Duran is California Opinion Editor for The Sacramento Bee.


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