Flavored cigarettes raise fears for youth in Contra Costa; Walnut Creek bans its sale

By Jun Nucum

WALNUT CREEK, California – Contra Costa County health officials, advocates and residents are alarmed that flavored tobacco products and vaping devices have adversely impacted the youth in their county.

The alarm bell was sounded after recent studies revealed that the tobacco industry is using flavored tobacco to entice young people, including youth of color with marketing, advertising and accessibility to such tobacco products were geared towards unsuspecting youth.

In particular, a high percentage of tobacco retailers are located near youth-sensitive areas in Antioch and Pittsburg, increasing exposure and accessibility to flavored tobacco products among diverse youth even as community-based organizations serving diverse populations and youth representatives are committed to reducing and ultimately eliminating tobacco use and exposure in these cities and the county overall.

Among those the figures that stood out in recent studies are that a 100% of Pittsburg and 97% of Antioch retailers surveyed sold flavored tobacco products, that in both Antioch and Pittsburg there are nearly or exactly 3 times as many tobacco retailers as there are schools respectively and almost half (49%) of Antioch retailers and 61% of Pittsburg retailers selling tobacco products are within 1,000 ft of a youth sensitive area (school, park, playground or library).

Though the county’s overall smoking rate is approximately 10%, data show that vulnerable populations and low-income communities tend to have smoking rates higher than the general population.

Concerned authorities, advocates and community-based  organizations are taking steps in preventing youth access to tobacco products is critical to ending the tobacco epidemic in the United States as they are committed to reducing and ultimately eliminating tobacco use and exposure in the county.

Early last month, Walnut Creek became the first Contra Costa County city to face the youth tobacco problem head-on after City Council members unanimously voted to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products and electronic smoking devices.

The measure to ease the nicotine problem will apply to menthol cigarettes, candy vape pens and any other tobacco products that have a distinct flavor besides that of regular cigarettes.

Among others, the ban ordinance that will be enforced in five months will also prohibit the sale of vaping devices and its main intention was to cut off the supply of these addictive products to the city’s youth.

In an earlier virtual ethnic media briefing, Flavored Tobacco Products Impact Diverse Youth in Contra Costa County, Contra Costa County health experts and community leaders shared their insights on how tobacco use is disproportionately affecting diverse and also vulnerable communities in the region, and their collaborations to address these issues.

Contra Costa Health Services health director Dr. Ori Tzvieli shared in the briefing that Juul, e-cigarette option for taking nicotine,  delivers about the same amount of nicotine as a full  pack of 20 cigarettes.

Tzvieli also disclosed that there was report in 2016 that stated that “the use of nicotine in any form including e-cigarettes amongst youth can harm adolescent brain development, impact detection memory, learning, .and lead to a lifetime abuse.”

“Tobacco industry has pivoted and turned to the use of vaping products. And that a whole new generation of youth that basically normalizes vaping and they do this by making the product super enticing to use,” Tzvieli added. “In 2021, four of five kids that used tobacco have initiated it  with flavored product. That is about 85% of middle high school students. The most common flavors are fruit, (70% of youth have tried it),  candy flavor, mint, or menthol. Most of the time you cannot really tell the difference between candy and tobacco-flavored products.

Tzvieli also noted that vaping devices are even made to look as school supplies e.g. pens, USBs that makes it really hard to distinguish the difference between one over the other.

Further, nicotine-infused flavored products with flavors like unicorn cotton candies, mint, and a lot of other flavors that are vry appealing to children visually.

The communities with a population living twice below the poverty level are Richmond, Bay Point, Antioch and Pittsburg correlates with the greater number of tobacco retailers and it is evident that more tobacco shops in those areas where people are living in poverty.

It is thus observed that exposure to tobacco marketing, advertising and tobacco retail shops depends on where you live as communities with people of color are more densely populated and are most impacted by accessibility and availability of these products mostly in tobacco retail  shops include grocery stores, specialty tobacco shops, dollar stores, gas stations, convenient stores.