(Opinion) The covert campaign to get kids hooked on smoking

Tobacco industry uses flavored products to target and addict kids

From a young age, I was told not to smoke cigarettes. I heard it from parents, teachers, doctors and police officers: Don’t smoke cigarettes; they’ll kill you. Everyone around me seemed to be on the same page. Gen Z was warned of past generations who frivolously lit up, completely unaware of the various health implications using tobacco products can have.

So now we know, right? I remember saying as a child, “I’ll never smoke a cigarette” because … well why would I? All around me were warning signs. Graphic images, long lists of chemicals, stories of ex-smokers who now can only speak using a voice box. For cigarettes, the message has always been clear to Gen Z. Or has it?

A boost in education regarding the side effects of using cigarettes has not resulted in the discontinuation of these harmful products. Instead, it’s just caused tobacco companies to get creative.

When kids see a cigarette, they know it’s bad. However, when you take a cigarette and make it look, feel or taste like something else, that understanding begins to fade. In the last decade, tobacco companies have disguised their products with flavors and technology, making them desirable and easy to consume, especially for children. With the introduction of a huge assortment of sweet-flavored tobacco products, especially e-cigarettes and cigars, children have fallen victim yet again to the tobacco industry.

Flavored tobacco products are the secret to keeping tobacco companies alive and well. Eight-five percent of all youth e-cigarette users use flavored products. Children at a grocery store naturally find themselves reaching for a pack of bubble gum or a cherry Coke. So what happens when that same child is offered a tobacco product that tastes the same? Flavors play a key role in youth tobacco use, and the tobacco industry uses flavored products to target and addict kids.

Of course, not all kids are targeted the same. Black Americans, Native Americans and LGBTQ community members have been targeted at disproportionate rates compared to other individuals living in the U.S. For decades, tobacco companies have targeted the Black community with predatory marketing and, as a result, 85 percent of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes, and Black Americans die at higher rates from tobacco-related diseases like cancer, heart disease and stroke.

This isn’t just about keeping people healthy.

This problem speaks to a larger conversation about how tobacco companies, historically and contemporarily, strategically target communities that are most vulnerable.

In 2022, the NAACP released a resolution calling for a ban on menthol products that accelerate tobacco use, especially among Black youths. Tobacco-Free Kids is a national campaign that has worked tirelessly to prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, American Cancer Society, American Dental Association and over 350 other health and equity associations have backed the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids to protect children and save lives from the No. 1 cause of preventable death: tobacco use.

This is a nationally recognized issue, and as such our federal congressional delegation should be on the front lines of this battle. The commitment to be educated, healthy and equitable is one that all New Hampshire federal policymakers should uphold as our representatives in Washington. New Hampshire has always been able to count on Senators Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen on tobacco prevention measures, and I hope they will be proactive with this issue by pushing a ban on menthol flavored tobacco products through the U.S. Senate.

Over the last decade, educators, health officials, parents and policymakers have attempted to warn children of the detrimental side effects of using tobacco products. However, with the introduction of electric and flavored products, younger generations are significantly less likely to draw the connection between these disguised products and their respective underlying effects.

Today, tobacco companies continue to profit off harmful products targeted to children and members of underserved communities. It’s been years since traditional cigarettes and other similar products were considered “cool,” yet kids are still making the same mistakes, and for the same reasons.

Savannah Willette of Somersworth, a senior at Elon University in North Carolina, is outreach and social media associate at the Concord-based government relations firm Dennehy & Bouley.

Categories: Opinion