San Francisco Marin Medical Society Blog

Op Ed by Mark Leno

By Mark Leno

Big Tobacco is at it again — marketing to children about deadly addiction. Thanks to Prop E, the industry’s newest ads hoodwink voters by censuring the proposition and failing to disclose any details about its objective.

This is because Big Tobacco doesn’t want voters to know the truth. Prop E upholds San Francisco’s common sense ban on the sale of candy-flavored tobacco products designed specifically to catalyze an interest in smoking among young people. The truth is that Big Tobacco knows most San Franciscans are likely to stand with American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club in saying Yes on E.

The messaging against Prop. E is largely bankrolled by a single tobacco company, R.J. Reynolds. This company has already poured nearly $12 million dollars into the campaign. But while the ads might be new, the industry’s motivation is not. Tobacco companies care only about creating the next generation of nicotine addicts.

Now, this tobacco company — a major supporter of Trump’s Republican Party — is trying to overturn a decision by our democratically-elected Board of Supervisors in the most progressive city in the nation.

Thanks to decades of successful smoking prevention campaigns, the number of smokers in the United States continues to decline. Between 2005 and 2014, the percentage of Americans who smoke dropped from 20.9% to 16.8%, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Tobacco prevention programs are a victory for the health of millions of Americans. But it’s bad news for Big Tobacco’s bottom line. The more smoking, disease and death are reduced, the less money Big Tobacco rakes in.

Recently, the tobacco industry created a cynical strategy to hook a new generation on nicotine: products designed to look and taste like candy. The gateway to nicotine addiction now comes disguised as popular candy flavors such as gummy bear, cotton candy, Sour Patch Kids, and peanut butter cup.

At first glance, it’s impossible to tell the difference between a nicotine-laced candy and the pure, popular kids’ candy brands. But just one look at these products — such as Double Stuffed Oreo flavor and Nilla Vapers — and there’s no question about the target market: candy flavored tobacco targets kids. And it works. Candy-flavored tobacco products have become an epidemic in schools across the nation.

One product, a vaping device disguised as a USB cartridge made by San Francisco-based JUUL, is so popular with children that they refer to vaping as “juuling.”

“I can’t stop,” said one JUUL-addicted high schooler profiled by the New York Times. At an age when he should be most worried about prom, his principal is recommending a nicotine patch. Such stories are in part why San Francisco Supervisors unanimously passed a law to ban flavored nicotine. They recognize the importance of protecting children from the dangerous tactics of tobacco companies.

Campaigns like these from the tobacco industry are nothing new. In the 1950s and 1960s, tobacco companies ran their ads during shows popular with children. They even had Fred Flintstone smoking cigarettes and declaring, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”

Flavor has always been a key part of the Big Tobacco playbook as has targeting specific groups of people. In the 1970s and 1980s, tobacco companies carried out an advertising strategy to target African Americans with menthols.

In 2000, leaked documents exposed “Project SCUM,” a plan by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to heavily market nicotine addiction to the LGBT community and homeless people. (Clever acronym, R.J.) When cigarettes are the number one cause of preventable death in California, when people who smoke cigarettes are 20 times more likely to develop lung cancer than nonsmokers, when only 12% of teen smokers who tried to quit were able to do so successfully — we have to take a stand.

Tobacco companies don’t want to be your friend. They want to kill you. Remember this when voting on June 5. Please join us in voting Yes on E, and in saying “no thanks” to candy-flavored carcinogens pushed by Big Tobacco.

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