By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
Decades ago, public health officials realized the lunacy of using a cartoon character to promote cigarettes. That was the beginning of the end for Joe Camel, the cool pool-shooting, cigarette-puffing character.
The big colorful camel had become as easily recognizable as the Disney logo to youth, according to Dr. Megan Roberts, from Ohio State University, who spoke about adolescents and new tobacco products to the Wood County Prevention Coalition last month.
As the use of traditional cigarettes has dropped among teens, the use of alernative tobacco products is up. Those new products include vaping – the inhaling and exhaling of aerosol produced by e-cigarettes or similar devices like vape pens.
While cartoon characters have been banned from tobacco marketing, fun flavors are allowed – 7,764 flavors in fact – ranging from chocolate, to “mango tango,” to “cinna-MMM.”
“Adolescents respond to tobacco marketing,” Roberts said. Despite restrictions, tobacco products are advertised heavily in places like convenience stores or gas stations. “They are plastered with tobacco ads.”
The tobacco industry spends more than $9 billion a year on marketing, she said.
A study of adolescents and cigarette advertisements showed that flashy tobacco ads increase activity in youths’ brains. Ads for flavored tobacco created brain activity in kids who weren’t tobacco users. An eye-tracking study showed kids focused longer when flavored tobacco ads were shown.
The colorful ads combined with the fruity flavors create the perception that e-cigarettes are harmless, cool, even fashionable, Roberts said.
“These are chemicals that can be dangerous when inhaled,” especially for developing brains, she said.
Though smoking regular cigarettes is no longer as popular with adolescents, there are many other options out there for them now – cigarillos, e-cigs, hooka, juuls.
In 2014, e-cigarette use surpassed cigarette use in middle and high school students in the U.S., Roberts said.
Many teens and adults consider these newer options as safe, but Roberts disagreed.
Hookah, she said, which involves tobacco being smoked through a water pipe, has the same risks as cigarettes. “With every puff, the user is inhaling carcinogens,” she said. “It’s not a harmless water vapor.”
The same goes for cigarillos, which are tiny cigars.
E-cigs, devices that deliver nicotine and other additives through inhaled aerosols, are not only flavored, but are also shaped like everyday items that adults don’t realize are e-cigs, Roberts said.
“There are many different shapes and sizes,” she said. “Some look like pens and some look like USB drives.”
“Those are extremely popular among young people,” Roberts said. “Parents don’t know what they are.”
In some cases, teens can be vaping from the smaller devices in class, without teachers realizing, she said.
Many youth and their parents don’t realize that some of the cigarette alternatives still contain addictive nicotine, cancer-causing chemicals, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds, she said.
Tobacco is still the leading cause for mortality in the U.S., with more than 480,000 lives lost a year, according to Roberts.
“Tobacco is clearly a public health concern,” she said.
Rates of overall adolescent tobacco use have not dropped in the past five years. One in five high school students report using tobacco products in the last 30 days.
“Addiction begins early,” Roberts said.
Controversies surround e-cigarettes, she said. Do they help adults quit smoking? Roberts thinks not effectively. Do they function as a gateway to other tobacco use? Possibly, since the trend seems to be for young people to start with e-cigs then move onto cigarettes.
“There’s mounting evidence that youth may not have started otherwise,” she said.
Roberts recommended the following policies for alternative tobacco products:
- E-cigs should be regulated to the same extent as regular cigarettes.
- No e-cig ads should be allowed on TV.
- E-cigs should be banned wherever cigarettes are banned.
- Licensing and zoning should reduce the number of places where e-cigs can be sold.
- Tobacco purchases should be limited to those age 21 and older.
“We need to protect our young people from a lifetime of addiction and nicotine diseases,” Roberts said.