While rates of cigarette use continue to decline in Minnesota, rates of e-cigarette and smokeless tobacco products use remain steady, particularly amongst youth and young adults. As the general public has become more aware of the deadly effects of cigarettes and public health officials and communities have championed anti commercial tobacco policies, the tobacco industry has found new and insidious ways to addict the next generation of smokers.
The tobacco industry is constantly evolving, introducing new products aimed at addicting consumers and finding calculated ways to evade regulation. One of the long-standing tactics of the tobacco industry is targeting youth. Today, the tobacco industry is constantly introducing new products, most of which come with deceptive marketing tactics claiming to be less addictive than cigarettes. Nicotine pouches, lozenges, e-cigarettes, IQOS heated tobacco devices, disposable e-cigarettes, and synthetic nicotine are just some of the major products on the landscape that are aggressively marketed to youth.
The Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota (ANSR) is a nonprofit organization working to protect Minnesotans from the dangers of commercial tobacco, nicotine, and other drugs. For decades, ANSR has been dedicated to ensuring that all Minnesotans can breathe clean, smoke-free air everywhere and protecting youth from a lifetime of addiction. With support from the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, ANSR has been leading advocacy campaigns centered around reducing health inequities in commercial tobacco and nicotine use.
ANSR is proactively working to address how the tobacco industry targets youth, Black, Indigenous and communities of color, members of the LQBTQIA+ communities, and create greater awareness of the harms of all nicotine products. “The tobacco industry has historically targeted youth to get them hooked on nicotine to find replacement smokers as their current users and keep profiting off addiction,” said Esha Seth, Program Director at ANSR. “The tobacco industry has also historically targeted marginalized communities. Some examples include sponsoring powwows and giving away free samples in low-income neighborhoods. This has resulted in disproportionately higher rates of health disparities among these communities.”
As serious concerns grow over electronic cigarette use, there have been regulations imposed on e-cigarettes by both states and the federal government. In June 2022, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered Juul Labs Inc. to remove all of the company’s e-cigarettes from the U.S. market, but later issued an administrative stay after Juul filed a lawsuit. In September, Juul agreed to pay $438.5 million in a settlement with 34 states and territories over its blatant marketing to youth.
While this is a major step forward, the tobacco industry is finding ways to evolve their business, introducing new and dangerous products to avoid regulation. “The tobacco industry is adapting and finding loopholes in state and federal laws by introducing synthetic nicotine products that are often advertised as ‘tobacco-free’ like lozenges, gum, and pouches,” said Esha Seth. “These products are advertised as treatment-focused even if they haven’t been approved by the FDA as a nicotine replacement product and targeted to young people with catchy names and fruit and candy flavors.”
Synthetic nicotine is created in a lab and is not derived from the tobacco plant. Synthetic nicotine is relatively new, and the health effects and toxicity are poorly understood compared to what we know about tobacco-derived nicotine. The most common uses of synthetic nicotine are in products such as vapes and pouches. One of the major issues is that companies producing synthetic tobacco products frequently don’t reveal the chemical process they use to manufacture them, making the health effects even more difficult to understand. Puff Bar is currently one of the most used synthetic nicotine products amongst youth. In 2020, the FDA mandated Puff Bar to remove their flavored e-cigarettes and youth-appealing e-liquid products from the market as part of a strategy to address the dramatic increase in youth vaping. However, in March 2021, Puff Bar introduced new synthetic nicotine products on the market, effectively evading the FDA’s oversight.
In addition to synthetic nicotine products like Puff Bar, many new products are also being introduced to the market and promoted as “tobacco-free”. This includes products that use nicotine extracted from tobacco such as Lucy, Zyn, Velo, Rouge and more. Companies use deliberately deceptive marketing tactics, claiming that synthetic nicotine and “tobacco-free” products are safe. These products are frequently labeled as “clean” and “pure,” which is misleading to consumers.
Regardless of the source, nicotine is a highly addictive substance that is shown to harm the developing brain. Companies are profiting from the misconception that synthetic nicotine and “tobacco-free” products are safe to use. “Parents, educators, and adults should know that there is no safe amount of nicotine exposure for youth,” said Molly Schmidtke, Community Outreach Coordinator for ANSR. “Addiction is hard and supporting youth should be the primary focus. No one product is ‘safer’ than smoking. Any nicotine product can create a lifetime of addiction for youth. Parents, educators, and adults should provide youth a safe space to address their concerns and share information on the lifetime of harm these products can cause.”
Raising awareness of the harms of e-cigarettes and “tobacco-free” products among youth and adults is critical in creating a healthy future. “Peer to peer advocacy is extremely important, and we know that youth are the best messengers to their peers,” said Molly Schmidtke. “Identifying youth leaders in your community and working with them on this can really motivate other young people to get involved.”
Policy also plays an essential role in reducing the use of commercial tobacco and nicotine, particularly in communities who experience the greatest health inequities. One of the best ways to stand up to the tobacco industry is to pass strong local ordinances and state laws that regulate tobacco products. This includes how products are sold, where they are available, and eliminating the sale of menthol, fruit, and candy flavored products. “The tobacco Industry doesn’t let up on their marketing to capture new consumers and hold onto existing consumers,” said Chris Matter, Community Health and Health Equity Senior Manager at the Center for Prevention. “These products are addictive and deadly. Our goal is to eliminate access to and use of commercial tobacco in Minnesota, especially in communities most impacted by commercial tobacco-related health inequities.”
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