LOS ANGELES — Located next to images of a juice box, a USB flash drive and what looks like a Sriracha hot sauce bottle are the words “The Tobacco Industry Has a Kids Menu.” But these images, as the words suggest, aren’t what they seem. They are nicotine products.
Those images and revealing words are part of a new campaign called “Flavors Hook Kids” by the California Department of Public Health’s Tobacco Control Program.
The campaign, launched April 24, is “designed to address the latest marketing techniques of the tobacco industry, increased availability of flavored tobacco and a new class of high-tech devices clearly aimed at our youth,” said state Director of Public Health Karen Smith during a teleconference.
With more than 15,500 e-cigarette flavors on the market, there is growing concern that more middle and high-school-aged youth are finding these flavored tobacco products enticing.
“Flavors disguise the harshness of tobacco products and make smoking seem harmless, when we know it’s not,” said Smith in a news release. “Innocent sounding e-cigarette flavors like Cherry Crush and Cotton Candy could lead to a lifetime of nicotine addiction.”
And these products are easy for minors to get. Studies show that adolescents can successfully buy e-cigarette products online more than 90 percent of the time.
“The kids are getting them from each other, from gas stations and they’re getting them online,” said Carol McGruder, founding member and co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council.
McGruder cited a research paper published in January by UC San Francisco showing that youth who use alternative tobacco products like e-cigarettes are likelier to start smoking conventional cigarettes within a year.
The findings, the authors wrote, could be explained by a variety of factors:
“Using non-cigarette tobacco products might induce nicotine dependence.”
“Use of the products could change how adolescents perceive cigarettes.”
And “Adolescents might find that such products are more convenient and effective in satisfying nicotine cravings.”
A new class of products called “pod mods” are causing particular concern because of their convenience, effectiveness and look.
“One in particular, Juul, that’s its name, looks like a flash drive,” Smith said. “It even plugs into a laptop for charging, mimicking a flash drive. The innocuous look, however, hides its potency.”
She added that a small Juul pod carries as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.
“[Juuls] are easy to hide. … I liken these e-cigarettes to crack pipes because people can just hit them once and put it away and it doesn’t have a smell [like cigarette smoke],” McGruder said.
The health risks of e-cigarette products like Juul were recently substantiated by UC San Francisco. Researchers found that heart attack risks doubled in people who smoked e-cigarettes daily; combined with conventional cigarettes, the risk increased five-fold.
The research — along with a study showing that nearly 4 million middle and high school students reported using at least one tobacco product in 2016 — is sparking stronger efforts to fight the tobacco industry and its flavored products targeted to youth.
“We want to defend our children from this industry that morphs and that has to replace the smokers who are dying and they replace them with our children,” McGruder said.