Annenberg Radio News

Prop 31 aims to rescue marginalized communities from nicotine addiction

Children and communities of color are under great risk from flavored tobacco products, which have been heavily marketed to them by big tobacco companies.

A woman holds a flavored disposable vape device.

Flavored tobacco products are all the rage amongst young people. In fact, recent studies show more than two million kids from middle school through high school in California currently use e-cigarettes. And eighty percent of those kids started out with a flavored tobacco product.

Darcie Green is the executive director of Latinas Contra Cancer. She says flavored tobacco products specifically target children.

Darcie Green: “I participated in a press conference a few weeks ago for Yes on Prop 31, and one of the panelists in the press conference, he said, ‘You know, we don’t need piña colada, or horchata flavored tobacco any more than we need piña colada or horchata flavored cleaning supplies.’”

Kelly Hardy: “Youth use of tobacco in California was really going in the right direction, was decreasing, and then we saw just a surge in vaping, and especially vaping these flavored products, that more youth were starting, were becoming addicted to tobacco again.”

Kelly Hardy agrees. She’s a senior managing director at Children Now in LA.

Kelly Hardy: “Big tobacco companies do target youth, and especially youth of color, and try to get them hooked on the product that is going, that they can be addicted to for the rest of their life, and it shortens the lives, especially of black and brown folks.”

And this isn’t the first time tobacco companies have marketed to communities of color. Since the 1950s, tobacco companies specifically marketed menthol cigarettes in black communities.

Doctor Phillip Gardiner is the co-chair for the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. For the past twenty years, he’s been trying to get menthol cigarettes off the market, for good.

Doctor Phillip Gardiner: “We already knew then that menthol was the main killer of African Americans, had been for decades, remains so today. When you look at it, the main killers––heart attacks, strokes, and cerebral vascular disease are brought about by smoking, and the main thing that is the vector into our community have been menthol cigarettes. There are more promotions and advertisements in our community, they are more, they are cheaper in our community. We actually have data that shows this.”

Doctor Gardiner says, after World War Two, many companies in the U.S. started making special food products and care products aimed at the Black community, including menthol cigarettes.

Doctor Phillip Gardiner: “It became clear that possibly there would be a market where you could particularize different smokes for different folks. Brown and Williamson in the 1950s, in the late 1950s, held a series of focus groups among black and white smokers that found that advertising for menthol cigarettes resonated greater with African Americans, to which they put a good ninety percent of their budget, to television advertising.”

In 1950, less than ten percent of black smokers used menthol cigarettes. But today, more than eighty five percent do.

Doctor Phillip Gardiner: “The tobacco industry is showing black faces on TV smiling, smoking menthol cigarettes, smoking cool cigarettes and stuff like this. You can see that this was something that the tobacco industry, this was a way to make money off the lives of black people, and it works so effectively that they kept doing it.”

Opponents of Prop 31 say there are problems with the measure. Beth Miller is a spokesperson for the No on Prop 31 campaign. She sent us a statement that said the politicians who wrote Prop 31 say it will reduce underage tobacco use, but it’s already illegal to sell any tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21 in California.

She went on to say the ban would impose a total prohibition on products that millions of adults choose to use, and, would ban the sale of many FDA-authorized alternatives for adult cigarette smokers, which would cause serious and lasting damage to tobacco harm reduction goals.

Miller also says it will increase crime and expand illegal markets. But Doctor Gardiner disagrees.

Doctor Phillip Gardiner: “Menthol cigarettes and flavored cigarettes have been banned in many cities throughout California and around the country. No illicit market has arisen, none. People keep talking about that, but that has not arisen in Canada, which outlawed it nationally, and in all its provinces, starting in 2018 and I think, culminating in 2020.”

Darcie Green thinks the failure to ban flavored tobacco products can seriously risk the lives of kids.

Darcie Green: “We, as adults have choices, right? We can drive to other communities, right? We can order things online. We have choices. Children have the choices we put in front of them.”