Local Teen Tobacco Use Surges Upward: Could bans on retail sales of flavored products slow the trend?


Across Marin County, local town boards and councils are considering regulations on the sale of flavored tobacco products. The goal: make it harder for young people to obtain tobacco products, which they are suddenly using at an alarmingly higher rates throughout Marin and across the nation.

On March 20, 2019, the Corte Madera Town Council voted to pass a Tobacco Retail Licensing Ordinance that includes a ban on all flavored tobacco products. This move is following the lead of the Marin County Board of Supervisors who voted on a county flavor ban in November 2018. Larkspur approved the first reading and is expected to pass the same ordinance next month – and San Anselmo Town Council will have a public hearing to consider this item at their meeting on Tuesday, March 26, 2019.  

“The epidemic use of e-cigarettes among children is one of the biggest public health challenges currently facing the FDA,” announced FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. in a statementaccompanying newly published CDC data on this issue just last month.

Why the alarm bells? And why are flavors in the crosshairs?

We learned in February from the CDC that among high school students, e-cigarette use increased by 77% between 2017 and 2018. Use by middle schoolers is up 48%. In Marin, we are not exempt from this upward trend: vaping has more than doubled among our own seventh, ninth and 11th graders during the past two years.

“But hey, aren’t e-cigarettes (vaporizers) a milder alternative to smoking?” you may be wondering. After all, as parents, these products are new to our generation, so we have no personal experience to refer to. Teens perceive these products as less harmful and less addictive, as do adults, it turns out. This perception is perfectly understandable, given how the products are marketed, as a “safe” smoking cessation aid for adults, and as flavorful, colorful and sleek, which appeals to kids.

Consider how these factors increase the appeal of e-cigarettes and heighten the risk that using them will have lasting consequences, particularly for young people:

  • One JUUL (the most popular e-cigarette on the market) vaporizer pod delivers the same amount of nicotine as a full pack of cigarettes (CDC). But many teens believe they are not even consuming nicotine, only flavors, when they use it. Others are under the impression they are consuming only a low level of nicotine.

  • Vaporizers use liquid pods that come in more than 15,500 sweetened flavors such as creme, cucumber, mango and vanilla cupcake. Flavors entice younger users, and today most youth nicotine users say they started with a flavored product.

  • Youth who use e-cigarettes are more likely to transition to conventional cigarettes, and in contrast to those who do not vape, are four times as likely to begin smoking cigarettes within 18 months. (JAMA Network)

  • Still-developing teen brains are more susceptible to addiction.

With Marin 11th graders who report vaping regularly at 28% up from 11% just two years ago, concerned public officials are racing against time to act quickly. “After decades of progress on the reduction of tobacco use, we’re losing ground,” Dr. Willis emphasized to Supervisors at the November 2018 Marin County meeting.

E-cigarettes destigmatize nicotine use, more young customers are quickly becoming users, and more of those users are transitioning to traditional smoking. Voila: Philip Morris is back in business, with its parent company Altria’s December 2018 purchase of a 35% stake in San Francisco-based JUUL.

Equipped with this information, what can families do? Consider these actions:

  • Share this information with fellow parents and teens. You are the antidote to the savvy powerhouse marketing forces and peer influences your teen faces in his or her daily life, in person and on social media. This short video can help start the conversation with your kids.

  • Know the signs of teen vaping, often signaled by the room-lingering sweet smell of the flavors. Be aware of online purchases by your household via credit cards, since regardless of brick-and-mortar retail bans, vaping ingredients and devices are easily available online.

  • Write to your local town council. San Anselmo will be having a public hearing at their Town Council meeting on Tuesday, March 26th. When teens are informed, they care and speak up for their communities. See it for yourself in these impressive teen testimonies (start at 2:18:00) at the November 2018 Marin County Board of Supervisors hearing.

  • Know you are not alone. Many agencies and initiatives are keeping an eye on this issue, tracking trends, and publishing research results and advocating for healthy choices. Check in with them for the latest news: