Do we need local tobacco controls?
This is the question that our members of the Supervisory Board and the City Council explored, without acting, during their joint meeting on March 29.
I was asked to comment on this question as project director for the California Health Collaborative’s NorCal 4 Heath Project, which is a five-year project funded by the California Tobacco Control Program.
Our project provides community education regarding tobacco use, the harms and the tools a community can use to address it. There are currently six other funded tobacco education prevention projects in Del Norte County. This alone should warn us that addiction to tobacco and nicotine is no ordinary problem.
According to the California Department of Public Health, Del Norte County has had one of the highest adult smoking rates in the state of California for the past 12 years. All of this while having funded tobacco education programs, worked in our schools, community, medical offices and law enforcement for over 20 years.
Over the past seven years, vaping has entered our local scene, and our education and prevention efforts thus far have not been enough. The California Healthy Kids Survey reports that youth vaping rates in Del Norte County have continued to rise each year. From the start of the 2020-21 school year:
· 1 in 10 grade seven students (11 and 12 years old) have vaped;
· 1 out of 5 eleventh graders has vaped;
· 1 in 2 non-traditional students have vaped in the past 30 days.
In a presentation given by Dr. DeNoble, a leading addiction scientist, he said that in 1979 his lab discovered that it only takes 41 milligrams of nicotine to rewire the brain and cause addiction. Interestingly, a single Juul (a vaping device popular among young people) contains 41 milligrams of nicotine.
There are no FDA regulations on nicotine levels in these devices, so they can vary and far exceed 41 milligrams.
Tobacco companies often use nicotine salts in vapes that allow you to inhale and absorb higher concentrations faster than regular nicotine. It interferes with a growing brain. Nicotine alters the way connections are formed in the brain, and exposure to it during brain growth – up to around age 24 – makes young people more vulnerable to addiction.
Tobacco companies know that 90% of today’s smokers started before the age of 18. It is well documented that Big Tobacco has used this knowledge for over 60 years. In a 1969 draft report, “Why One Smokes”, the Phillip Morris Company is quoted:
“Smoking a cigarette for the beginner is a symbolic act…. ‘I am no longer my mother’s child, I am tough, I am an adventurer, I am not square.’
With big spending on tobacco, $8.4 billion a year on marketing, and 97.4% of that is spent at the point of sale, it’s no wonder these products seem “not so bad.” Big Tobacco has many years of experience and know-how in marketing, creating environments and social standards.
This is even more evident in rural communities, like ours, where there are no local protections against Big Tobacco’s marketing dollars. Seems hard to really believe they spend that much or have that much influence in our little town, doesn’t it? But they do.
There are 11 places within two miles of the Crescent City limits where someone can buy tobacco. There are 26 locations, if you include the whole county. In each of these locations, Big Tobacco places signs and posters inside and outside these stores, on gas station fences, gas pumps, windows and walls.
Big Tobacco pays for counter mats, changing cups, displays, coupons, price discounts and promotional payments to retailers to have their products placed in specific store locations, such as the wall behind the checkout counter recorder.
With so many places people can see their products, it’s no wonder young people think tobacco and nicotine products are just a normal part of childhood experimentation.
In Del Norte County, there is a greater density of tobacco stores with 93 stores selling tobacco per 100,000 residents, compared to 79.6 stores per 100,000 residents in California. Rural county stores were found to be much more likely to advertise at least one discount for chewing tobacco and vaping products, which appeals to price-sensitive consumers, including young people.
Great tobacco has strong roots in rural communities. It is, unfortunately, up to our underfunded communities to tackle Big Tobacco’s unfair targeting. A tobacco retail license is a public health recommended best practice for communities working to prevent tobacco use.
Policies that reduce the density of tobacco retailers are effective in reducing or eliminating inequalities in the location and distribution of tobacco retailers. Restricting access to flavored tobacco has also been shown to reduce use among young people.
In an evaluation of New York City law, which banned the sale of all flavored tobacco except menthol, it was found that due to the law young people were 37% less likely to try flavored tobacco products and 28% less likely to ever use any type of tobacco.
So I ask the community, if the six tobacco prevention programs have failed to curb the increase in vaping rates among our youth, should we add another tool to our toolbox? This is the question our elected officials were trying to answer on March 29, but unfortunately, they did nothing.
The community was left with the consensus to do nothing and with comments like ‘kids will be kids’ and warnings that this is a ‘slippery slope to government excesses’.
Conversations quickly lead to political party values and fictitious ideas of “where will government overrule stop?” While it’s important not to lose sight of the big picture, the problem with this particular discussion is that we’ve lost sight of the real issue that’s going on with our young people.
One piece of information missing from the current conversation is the severe, lifelong nicotine addiction among our young people, and the chronic health effects and detrimental effects it has on our community.
There was no discussion that tobacco-related deaths are almost five times higher per year than drug overdose deaths, or that tobacco-related deaths are five times higher than alcohol-related deaths, or 13 times higher per year than car accident deaths.
This is no ordinary problem; tobacco is the number one preventative cause of death and chronic disease in America. I hope our elected officials decide to have another meeting and work out the best options for our community to protect our young people from this addictive product.
If we recognize that our small community has six local programs that attempt to educate and prevent youth use, and as we see more and more young people vaping, then we need to do something more.
If you would like to get involved, please attend the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Del Norte. You can call (707) 951-2914 or email [email protected] for the next meeting and location details. Or attend an information meeting on April 23 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Del Norte High School, room A-2. Or better yet, voice your opinion at your next city council, our supervisory board.
It’s your home and your children. So please take this information and decide for yourself. Would you like to add local controls to protect our young people from Big Tobacco?