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Tobacco use is the single greatest cause of death and disability in the United States, causing more deaths than alcohol, homicide, illegal drugs, AIDS, car accidents, suicide and fires combined. Worse yet, for Boulder, is the fact that our local youth smoking rates now exceed the national norm.
The most recent survey of youth smoking in Boulder Valley School District reports that 53% of 12th graders smoked cigarettes within the past 30 days. The same survey instrument, The American Drug and Alcohol Survey, compares this to a national 12th grade rate of 37%. A 53% rate places Boulder youth beyond a national rate that, of itself, represents a nineteen year high in youth smoking.
At a time when adult smoking has continued to decline, youth smoking has reached epidemic proportions. In this country, 3,000 persons under age 18 begin smoking every day. Of the 3,000 kids initiated daily, two-thirds will smoke throughout their lives and one-third will eventually die of smoking related illness. The third that will eventually succeed in quitting will average ten quit attempts over 18 years.
Costs to an overburdened health care system equal $50 billion a year for treatment of tobacco related disease. Because nearly 90% of all tobacco use begins before age 18, thousands of lives and dollars can be saved annually if youth tobacco use can be slowed. Not only is youth smoking occurring at ever rising rates, the age of initiation is simultaneously dropping; the current average age of onset is now 13.
This is troubling for many reasons and threatens to disproportionately increase lives claimed among individuals who adopt tobacco use at early ages. Recent research links tobacco use in early adolescence to cancers appearing sooner than those traditionally seen in health care settings.
This alarming trend is attributed to damage done when smoking is initiated during a time when the lungs and body are still rapidly developing and are most susceptible to genetic damage. For the first time, a correlation is even being drawn between young girls who begin smoking, or who are exposed to secondhand smoke, and the the development of breast cancer later in life." To save lives for years to come, we must do what we can to prevent tobacco initiation during the teen years.
It is important that prevention measures address primary ways in which youth obtain tobacco from retailers. During a recent FDA check of tobacco sold illegally to minors, under-age kids were sold tobacco 35% of the time in the City of Boulder. Establishments that sell tobacco commonly display tobacco products in ways which foster shoplifting and illegal sales. Tobacco is often placed near gum and candy, well within the reach of youthful shoppers.
Worse yet, there is compelling evidence that tobacco is sometimes placed near exits and out of the line of sight of store clerks who might, otherwise, detect shoplifting. Tobacco companies pay sizable "slotting" fees to retailers to place their products exactly where they want them. According to a project carried out in Grand Junction and covered by CBS nightly news, such fees are formulated to compensate store owners for any "inventory shrinkage." Given the importance of recruiting new, young smokers to replace old, dying smokers, a disturbing interpretation of such product placement has been made by the American Lung Association.
They have stated publicly that the tobacco industry is well aware of the huge amount of teen tobacco shoplifting that occurs and reimburses retailers for any losses incurred in order to accomplish the more critical goal of gaining customers for life. Indeed, the internal documents of numerous tobacco companies obtained through a series of recent lawsuits have stated, in their own words, the vital importance of attracting 14 to 17 year-olds if the industry is to remain prosperous. (Such documents are available on various web sites and from thousands of pages of documents released to the press.)
Internal documents also reveal that the tobacco industry has long had full knowledge of the addictive nature of tobacco and knew that nicotine could be manipulated to increase "satisfaction" and addiction of smokers. Together, this body of knowledge suggests a strategy to make tobacco available to potential customers by whatever means necessary.
Now that the above information has been made available to the public, members of the Alliance of Boulder County on Tobacco and Health believe that Boulder should join other Colorado communities in advocating for tobacco displays that make products less available to kids.
Our neighbors in Loveland, Greeley, Ft. Collins, Denver and Estes Park have passed ordinances which place tobacco behind the counter, requiring a face-to-face transaction to obtain tobacco. No longer is tobacco in such communities displayed within the easy reach of youth. Ordinances requiring clerk-assisted sales have reduced youth purchases and shoplifting in the communities where they have been enacted. Ft. Collins cited a 33% sale rate to minors before requiring that customers go to the clerk and ask for cigarettes. After passing a behind-the-counter law, illegal sales dropped to 4%. It is not as easy to measure decreases in shoplifting, but retailers who have placed tobacco out of customer reach have reported definite decreases of "inventory shrinkage."
The tobacco industry also supports the sale of single, loose cigarettes known as "loosies." Loosies represent an effective way to addict young customers who are cost sensitive and who might pause before buying an entire pack. Loosies also fail to provide any of the required warnings about tobacco printed on cigarette packages. They are a convenient, cheap way to buy or sell tobacco with the partners to the transaction feeling that it's "no big deal." Since addiction to any addictive drug is always facilitated by attaching little cost to the first samples, loosies represent a very efficient and effective way for youth to acquire their early tobacco supply. They are also an effective means to "re-hook" individuals who are trying to quit by offering an opportunity to purchase only a few cigarettes rather than a full pack.
Some tobacco companies have also begun to package cigarettes in packs containing fewer than the 20 which have constituted the industry standard. These are known as "kiddie packs." Again, this is primarily an attempt to reduce cost to youthful customers. Kiddie packs are also easier to conceal in clothing from parents and teachers. The proposed ordinance would require that all cigarettes sold in the City of Boulder be in sealed packs of 20 carrying required warnings.
The third component of the proposed ordinance deals with prohibiting free tobacco samples to persons under 18 years of age. Free cigarettes and "starter" samples of chewing tobacco have been staples of tobacco promotions for years. They represent a conduit of "free" tobacco addiction to youth who might not otherwise try the product.
In closing, mention should be made of an approach we have chosen not to include in this proposed Boulder ordinance. The youth access measure recommended by Big Tobacco is that of passing youth possession ordinances. They know that such measures have no track record of actually reducing youth smoking. They also, conveniently, place responsibility on the kids the tobacco industry spends billions targeting rather than on those doing the targeting. The industry is also very aware that publicly projecting an "adults only" image for a product that is, ostensibly, for independent, sophisticated grown-ups makes it somewhat irresistible to kids most drawn to the images the tobacco companies portray.
If, contrary to evidence available at this time, youth possession laws prove to be an effective deterrent to tobacco use by under-age youth, City Council can always choose to strengthen the existing ordinance by adding such provisions. Until such time, the Alliance of Boulder County on Tobacco and Health prefers to assist, not needlessly criminalize, Boulder youth when there is no data available suggesting that it is effective to do so. On the contrary, current information suggests that such measures are ineffective and may even cause youth to define themselves as outcasts and outlaws; an outcome containing a whole different set of potentially dangerous consequences.
Because unprecedented numbers of Boulder youth are becoming addicted to a life threatening substance before reaching the legal age of consent, The Alliance of Boulder County on Tobacco and Health believes that passing an ordinance to protect Boulder youth is the right thing to do. We hope that the Boulder City Council will support this effort by passing the proposed ordinance.