Alameda Can Protect Kids with Ordinance

 

Last night, the Alameda City Councilmembers determined whether to restrict the sale of flavored tobacco products in the City of Alameda. If you care about kids, you’ll want to read on.

“Flavored tobacco products” is a broad category that includes flavored cigars, cigarillos, e-cigarettes and menthol cigarettes.

As the sales of traditional tobacco products decline, Big Tobacco has embraced flavored tobacco as its most profitable products. There are currently more than 15,500 flavors to choose from, including: cotton candy, circus animals and sour patch.

Why are your favorite foods and candies as a 10-year-old being repackaged and sold as nicotine-packed products? Because Big Tobacco is trying to hook a new generation of young smokers. And, their strategy is working.

In 2015, more than 7.2 million middle- and high-school students in the U.S. reported having used e-cigarettes — that’s greater than the total populations of Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Phoenix combined. The most popular device by far among adolescents is the Juul, with its sleek, easy-to-conceal design that looks like a flash drive. As Juul sales have soared, so have the number of youth users. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the number of high-school students that used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days has risen by about 75 percent since last year. Other devices include hookahs and vape pens.

In California, 30 percent of high-school students reported having used e-cigarettes, and in Alameda specifically — not unlike the rest of the state — nearly one-in-four 11th-graders reported using a vaping device or e-cigarette.

Let’s be clear: e-cigarettes are not safe, especially not for youth. In addition to causing arterial stiffness and increasing the possibility of long-term harm to brain development and the lungs, they pose many other health risks. They are strongly associated with the use of other tobacco products, which can cause even more damage.

Ending the sale of flavored tobacco will reduce access to the products that are the industry’s key strategy for targeting and addicting new smokers.

Despite laws that prohibit the sale of tobacco products to minors, these products are still relatively easy to obtain, even in a state like California where the legal age to purchase is 21. In fact, 42 percent of Alameda 11th-graders believe that it is “very” or “fairly” easy to obtain these products.

Alameda is one of the latest Bay Area cities to take a stand against Big Tobacco. The city of Oakland approved similar regulations in September 2017. Voters in San Francisco overwhelmingly supported a flavored-tobacco ban last summer. Other East Bay cities, including Richmond, San Leandro and San Ramon have also considered or passed local legislation to regulate flavored-tobacco products this year.

Although I am encouraged by Alameda’s initiative to put forward this important health policy, I cannot help but think about the harms that have already been caused by this “new tobacco.” While working on the San Francisco campaign this summer, I was surprised to see so many youth volunteers from all around the Bay Area. 

Their motives were clear. As one El Cerrito High School student told me, “I’m here because Juul is tearing my school apart.” What this and other youth stories reveal to me is that these flavored-tobacco products are affecting kids’ lives in ways that most of us cannot understand. But we can do something about it.

The proposed ordinance that the City Council considered last evening would do more than just end the sale of flavored tobacco products.

Among other protections, it would also restrict the sale of tobacco in pharmacies and set a minimum sales price of $7 for each pack of cigarettes and $5 per cigar. Alameda City Councilmembers should approve this ordinance and join other Bay Area leaders in protecting youth.

 

Zach Fernandez is a Master’s Student, UC Berkeley School of Public Health.