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Public Health Column for the Times-News

Protecting our youth from nicotine addiction

Published: Wednesday, May 5, 2017


Last month the Henderson County Board of Health passed a resolution expressing their support for the North Carolina General Assembly to repeal preemption of tobacco regulation, including electronic cigarettes. Preemption prevents local authorities from enacting rules or policies that are different than those set by a higher authority, such as the state. In 1993 North Carolina enacted a law that preempted all local smoke-free air laws. This action by the Board of Health was a small step toward restoring local control over tobacco policies, and in doing so, it also represents a small step toward reducing youth access to tobacco and nicotine products.

When electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, first became popular they were heralded as a safer way for people to stop using cigarettes. Many believed that e-cigs were safe and only had a harmless vapor coming from them. It hasn’t taken us long to learn that this new nicotine delivery system is not as wonderful as we thought. Not only do they contain unregulated amounts of nicotine, chemicals, heavy metals and other components, but e-cigs have become the latest “cool” thing for our youth.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2011-2015, use of e-cigs by high school students increased by an astounding 888 percent! Students are reducing their use of traditional cigarettes, but have traded them in for a product that still contains a highly addictive drug. A 2014 report from the Surgeon General tells us that, “adolescents, who are still going through critical periods of growth and development, are particularly vulnerable” to the effects of nicotine.

Big tobacco companies are smart. They know that they need to constantly recruit new customers to replace those that they lose from quitting smoking or death. They also know that most smokers begin before they’re 21 years old, so companies market their products to specifically appeal to our youth. E-cigs and small cigars are sold in more than 7,500 flavors including cotton candy, grape, banana pudding, chocolate, peach, bubble gum and strawberry shortcake ice cream. The products are heavily advertised at convenience stores and are often found or advertised near the candy, flavored frozen drinks and gum, or within three feet of the floor where young children can see them and develop brand recognition.

Earlier this year, students from UNC-Asheville collaborated with the Henderson County Department of Public Health to survey 63 retail stores in the county, specifically looking at tobacco product and e-cigarette marketing. Of the data collected, students found that more than three out of 10 stores displayed tobacco products within 12 inches of items appealing to children, such as toys and candy. Almost the same number of stores advertised tobacco products at young children’s eye level (lower than three feet from the floor). More than four out of 10 stores selling tobacco and nicotine products were located within one mile of a public K-12 school, which has typically been shown to correspond to a higher incidence of students who smoke. Flavored tobacco products were sold in more than eight of 10 stores, often for as little as two for 99 cents, and e-cigarettes were offered in almost half of the stores visited. To be clear, placement of these products and their advertising is not entirely at the discretion of store owners. Stores are paid by tobacco companies to display and market their products.

Most adult smokers started smoking or using other tobacco products when they were young and impressionable, giving no thought to what it might mean to them when they grew older. It’s a normal rite of passage during the middle and high school years for teens to seek their own unique identity. Because that search can so easily lead to unanticipated addiction, we must protect our young people until they become adults themselves and are ready to make choices that will impact them the rest of their lives.

For more information about preventing youth initiation to tobacco and nicotine products, contact Beverly Levinson at blevinson@hendersoncountync.org or visit truthinitiative.org.

Beverly Levinson is the health promotion coordinator at the Henderson County Department of Public Health. She can be reached at blevinson@hendersoncountync.org.

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