Smokeless tobacco marketing towards tweens

Heather Harris

Smokeless tobacco is making a comeback.

Gone are the days of the small circular tin holding chewing tobacco or dip. Now there are new-shaped tins, similar to an Altoid mint box, that contain nicotine-filled “mints” that are being marketed towards the younger crowd, typically children ages 11-13.

“When you are 11, 12, 13 years old, you think I’ll try this, how bad can it be,” said Judith Coykendall, program manager at Seven Hills Behavioral Health of New Bedford, Mass.

“When you do use tobacco at an early age, you are more likely to become addicted to alcohol and cocaine later on. It opens up the addiction pathway.”

And it’s not just nicotine mints making a presence with the tween crowd. There is chewing gum laced with nicotine, blunt cigars that are fruity flavored, electronic cigarettes and teabags kids suck on called “Snus.”

Going smokeless

Nationally, the number of youths smoking cigarettes has gone down, but the number of youths using smokeless tobacco has gone up, Coykendall said.

“This is another area of substance abuse that is coming up for kids,” said Patricia Harrison, Mansfield Public Schools Nurse Leader.

What concerns Coykendall is that the FDA has not approved these products. There are no labels outlining what is in them.

“We don’t know the levels of nicotine in them or what chemicals exist,” she said. “Its very dangerous for them to be swallowing.”

There is documentation of students being sent to emergency rooms after using smokeless tobacco. Symptoms in those cases included sweating, high blood pressure and nausea, Coykendall said.

“Nicotine is a vassal constrictor, people have heart attacks and stroke and can die from using nicotine, even for young kids, especially if you have a heart abnormality,” said Coykendall.

Fun-flavored tobacco

Coykendall said tobacco companies are packaging these items with the intent to lure in younger customers.

“They are looking for new customers and definitely gearing these products towards young kids,” Coykendall said.

When giving presentations, she brings examples with her to show parents what the smokeless tobacco products look like.

“Parents say if I looked into my child’s backpack, I would have thought it was candy,” Coykendall said. “The mints look like Tic Tacs, and the blunt cigars look like Fruit Roll-Ups.”

Another area that bothers Coykendall is the cost to purchase the products.

“The flavored cigars are 69 to 89 cents, they are kid-price sensitive,” she said. “That’s less expensive than a pack of gum or a bag of chips.”

And while these products legally are not supposed to be sold to minors, unlike alcohol, the underage purchaser does not get in trouble, only the storeowner.

“If a kid goes into the store and buys them, the store gets fined. There is no penalty for kids who buy them,” Harrison said.

Raising awareness

Marilyn Edge, director of the Tobacco and Alcohol Prevention Collaboration in Western Bristol County and Foxborough, Mass., gave two presentations last school year to both parents and students in area schools.

Part of her job is to bring awareness, and like Coykendall, emphasized how these new products can have lasting and addictive effects.

“These alternative tobacco products relate to other drugs and drug paraphernalia down the road,” Edge said.

Both health professionals want to educate and make parents aware that these products exist and can be harmful.

“They are targeting kids with flashy wrappers and fun flavors,” Coykendall said. “It’s cheaper than marijuana and easier to get than alcohol. Using these products at an early age makes you more likely to develop life-long, unhealthy and dangerous addictions.”