A new statewide assessment of Oregon retailers that carry tobacco shows the reach of the tobacco industry’s marketing.
“The results are not surprising,” said Curry County Health Department Administrator Ben Cannon.
The report highlights ads and products designed to appeal to youth, as well as heavy marketing to communities of color and people with lower incomes.
The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) worked with county health departments, Native American tribes, community partners and volunteers statewide to conduct its assessment of nearly 2,000 Oregon tobacco retailers.
“The tobacco industry spends more than $100 million per year to market its products in Oregon communities,” said OHA Public Health Division Director Lillian Shirley. “It pours most of this money into convenience stores, grocery stores and other retailers where people shop daily.
“They know that kids who see tobacco marketing are more likely to start smoking and that tobacco ads trigger cravings for people trying to quit.”
In Curry County, a volunteer used in the study said that during the retail assessment, the survey team was approached by one storeowner who “said he sells tobacco products cheaper than what he buys them for.
“In return, the tobacco companies send him checks if he’s keeping their products at the lowest price, filling space with a certain amount of their product and/or selling a certain amount of product.”
The assessment report included these key findings:
• Statewide, nine out of 10 tobacco retailers sold fruit- and candy-flavored e-cigarettes or cigarillos. These included e-cigarette flavors such as “Pebbles Donuts” and “Tropical Fusion.”
• Menthol is also a flavor, and 96 percent of retailers carried menthol products. The tobacco industry markets menthol products heavily in African American communities.
• Statewide, 64 percent of retailers used coupons and other discounts to make tobacco more affordable.
• Tobacco advertising appeared on the outside of nearly 50 percent of stores in the assessment. Inside the stores, 20 percent of retailers placed tobacco products next to candy and toys.
The OHA said its report comes at a time when communities are increasingly concerned about flavored tobacco use among youth, especially e-cigarette products like Juul.
In 2018, Oregon began enforcing a new tobacco minimum legal sales age of 21
Curry County Health is receiving reports from school officials about the underage use of tobacco and nicotine products. “We do receive reports that it is an increasing problem,” said department administrator Cannon.
“And the school officials are taking disciplinary action.”
Cannon said parents must play a key role in the solution. He stressed that more education at the family level is necessary.
“We do offer prevention programs in our communities to educate everyone about these issues,” he said.
What’s more, said Cannon, local counties and cities need to step up.
“There should be a licensing and regulation process, and enforcement,” he said. “It could be similar to how sales of alcohol to minors are regulated, using sting operations to find violators.”
But, Cannon said, the health department’s presentation last year of a proposed retail licensing pre-assessment strategy was met with concerns by the Curry County Board of Commissioners.
“Since we don’t have many tobacco retailers here, there was not much interest from the commission,” Cannon said. “They are concerned about who would do this and who would pay for it. So we are in an assessment stage right now.”
Cannon said if such a tobacco sales regulation and enforcement program was established in Curry County, the health department likely would be the lead agency.
“It is a matter of working with the commissioners and making sure that we do that right,” he said. “We are small and we have many things to take care of, so we don’t want to jeopardize our current services and staffing. We have to define where it fits. It is still on the table.”
Cannon said another key factor is the change in state funding for tobacco prevention education programs.
“Curry County has been waiting to see how that sifts out,” he said. “Regardless, it is still an issue we see as important.”
Meantime, his agency will look at how other jurisdictions in Oregon are regulating and enforcing tobacco sales.
“That is part of the reason there is a delay,” he said. “We want to see what they are doing and the lessons learned.”