Monday, January 07, 2013

Providence (Rhode Island) and Wakulla County (Florida) Claim to Want to Protect Kids from Addiction to Tobacco by Banning Flavored Products; But Both Exempt the Leading Flavored Tobacco Product of Choice Among their Kids

Recently, the city of Providence (Rhode Island) and the county of Wakulla (Florida) implemented ordinances that ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, except in a few locations where minors are not allowed. The Providence law, which went into effect last Thursday, bans the sale of flavored tobacco products in all stores except cigar bars. The Wakulla county law, which goes into effect on February 1, bans the sale of flavored tobacco products except in stores that are not open to minors.

Policy makers in both localities are boasting that these laws will protect kids from addiction to tobacco and will significantly reduce the rate of youth tobacco use:

The Providence mayor and city council boasted that the law would "curb tobacco use among youths" and "protect our youth from initiating the dangerous addictive habit of tobacco use."

The Wakulla County Board of Commissioners boasts that: "Through this ban Wakulla joins other communities on the frontlines of public health, helping to reduce the prevalence of teen tobacco use. Flavored tobacco is tobacco products like cigars, cigarettes, snuff, chewing tobacco, smokeless tobacco products and blunt wraps that have had artificial or natural flavors added to them. In 2009, the FDA banned the sale of candy flavored cigarettes across the country, but other existing and new tobacco products were left exempt to be handled by future action. According to Tobacco Free Florida over the last few years the emergence of new flavored tobacco products, presented in colorful and playful packaging and backed by hefty marketing budgets, have parents, teachers, health advocates, physicians, and communities rightly concerned. Flavored tobacco appeals to younger audiences. In Florida, one in six kids between the ages of 11 and 17 has ever tried flavored tobacco. The tobacco industry’s own documents show that these sweet tobacco products are designed to get children to start using tobacco products. Taking these products out of stores where our kids shop is a huge step forward towards keeping our youth tobacco free."

The Providence ordinance specifically mentions a number of flavors that are prohibited:
  • fruit;
  • chocolate;
  • vanilla;
  • honey;
  • candy;
  • cocoa;
  • dessert alcoholic beverage;
  • herb;
  • spice; and
  • concepts such as spicy, arctic, ice, cool, warm, hot, mellow, fresh, and breeze.

The Rest of the Story

What policy makers in Providence and Wakulla County are not telling the public is that these laws exempt the one flavor that is overwhelmingly popular among kids in their jurisdictions: menthol.

In fact, about 50% of youth smokers in middle school prefer menthol flavored cigarettes. And about 81% of African American middle school smokers prefer menthol flavored cigarettes. There are 1.3 million youth menthol smokers in the U.S., making menthol the single and overwhelmingly most popular flavored tobacco product among our nation's youth, including those in Providence and in Wakulla County.

So while politicians in Providence can boast that youth in that city will not have access to chocolate, vanilla, honey, and cocoa tobacco products, the ordinance does nothing to actually address the most popular flavored tobacco product that Providence youth are actually using: menthol cigarettes. And to the best of my knowledge, the Wakulla County ordinance does not include menthol cigarettes either.

Even worse, the Providence ordinance goes further to protect the financial interests of tobacco companies. It also exempts mint and wintergreen flavorings, which are the most prevalent flavors in the smokeless tobacco products actually used by Providence youth. So youth in Providence can continue to use their mint and wintergreen Skoal and Copenhagen, while the non-existent honey, vanilla, and chocolate smokeless tobacco products are taken off the market.

One might ask why it is that if policy makers in Providence aimed to "curb tobacco use among youths" and "protect our youth from initiating the dangerous addictive habit of tobacco use," they chose to exempt the primary flavored tobacco products that youth are actually using.

The answer is quite simple: the true aim was not to "curb tobacco use among youths" and "protect our youth from initiating the dangerous addictive habit of tobacco use," but to score a political victory without having to actually put a dent in tobacco sales and thus alienate tobacco companies or engender any serious political opposition.

The rest of the story is that the primary aim of these policy makers appears to be protecting the sales of the most popular and important flavored tobacco products among youth tobacco users, so as not to threaten the profits of cigarette and smokeless tobacco companies.

It is difficult to find a sincere desire to "curb tobacco use among youths" and "protect our youth from initiating the dangerous addictive habit of tobacco use" when one reads the fine print of the ordinance and considers the rest of the story.

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