Flavored blunt wraps, used to roll tobacco and frequently marijuana, are available at least four Marblehead convenience stores, and are specifically marketed toward teens, Redford says.
When North Shore Tobacco Control Officer Joyce Redford approaches a convenience store checkout counter, her eyes look past the barrage of colors of candy, gum packets, lottery tickets, knickknacks and lighters. Instead, she is searching for what she calls “crossover products,” items that, as she likes to say, are “hidden in plain sight.”
To the untrained eye, the items are easy to miss amid the dizzying array stacked near the convenience-store register.
But what she is eyeing, and what she is trying to raise awareness about, are tobacco-related products marketed specifically toward teens, which are readily available locally and throughout the country.
“There is no hiding this, which to me is alarming,” Redford said. “I cannot believe what is out there.”
Redford recently spoke about the products at a Marblehead Board of Health meeting, unloading for the board a bag of such products that she’s collected throughout the year. Her presentation left most board members in disbelief.
“Are we the only ones who don’t know about this stuff?” asked a bewildered Helaine Hazlett, the board’s chairman.
Take a walk into the 7-11 store in Marblehead, and here is what you will find: “grinders” (small metal contraptions that are used to grind up tobacco or drugs), pipes, hookah pipes for smoking specially made flavored tobacco, flavored chewing tobacco, boxes of blunt wraps (tobacco-based rolling papers), lm cigarettes that are packaged like Chanel perfume boxes, and smokeless-tobacco gum that comes in a candy-mint-like container. The list goes on.
None of these products are illegal to sell, although in most states, including Massachusetts, to buy any tobacco-related product a person must be 18 or older. In fact, as a local tobacco-control officer, Redford’s job is to conduct “compliance checks,” which the program has historically done twice a year to investigate whether a particular store is selling tobacco products to teens. By law, a vendor must keep all tobacco products behind the register; it’s illegal to make them self-serve. (Marblehead and Swampscott had 100-percent compliance rates for the most recent check.) But her group has also started tracking the prevalence of the newer tobacco-related products as a means of finding out what else is out there.
Cigarette companies spent approximately $13 billion on advertising and promotional expenses in 2005 for those tobacco-specific products, nearly double what was spent in 1998, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of that money, Redford says advertisers are more often targeting women and teens.
In 2008, tobacco company Philip Morris USA unrolled its sleek “purse pack” cigarette packaging containing ultra-slim cigarettes; the packaging is made to look as if it is a cosmetics case.
While Redford said the product seems specifically targeted toward teenage girls, calling it “girl gear,” Philip Morris asserts that kids and teens are not the intended audience for any of its tobacco products.
“We design our marketing programs to enhance brand awareness, recognition and loyalty among adult cigarette smokers,” the company’s Web site states.
Whatever the case is, Redford wants parents to know that these products are out there, and that teens are buying them.
“In Marblehead, out of the 12 tobacco vendors, four were selling an extraordinary amount of this,” Redford said. “Even if one store is selling them, shouldn’t we be concerned?”
At the very least, Redford said it’s important for adults to know what these products look like.
“If adults don’t know what they’re looking at, they are not going to be alarmed,” Redford continued. “This industry is wide awake.”
The convenience stores are part of the problem as Redford sees it. Typically, the independently run stores are selling the more varied items, while big-box chain stores often stick to the more traditional tobacco products.
“They are making a choice to carry these items, and I would say that most have full knowledge of their purpose,” Redford said, adding that it’s not uncommon for such products to be sold in proximity to schools.
Yet those interviewed who sell the products say that they are not doing anything wrong by offering them; business is business.
Aziz Ullah, who has been a manager of Marblehead’s 7-11 for 10 years, said his business has been selling blunt wraps for a long time, although he will acknowledges he recently introduced the pipes and the hookah offerings.
He added that his choice of products to sell comes from a corporate directive, and that if it’s not against the law, his store has every right to sell the products it chooses.
“It’s not in our control,” Aziz asserted. “You have to stop where it’s coming from.”
Al Barcamonte, owner of Marblehead’s White Hen Pantry, sells the blunt wraps in his store, but said they are not a big seller.
Bob Duprez, manager of Marblehead’s Howard’s News store, does not sell any of the new tobacco-related products in his store, but said he’s not making a moral decision about it. The fact is he doesn’t have a younger clientele.
“In my store I don’t think they’ll be a big seller… It’s a business judgment,” Duprez said. “My feelings are if they are going to smoke, whatever they do they are going to do, no matter what.”
Even if the teens can’t get what they are looking for in their local stores, such products are also offered online, which can be hard to track, admits Redford.
While recent legislation has made it more difficult for the tobacco companies to distribute such products, specifically cigarettes, tobacco and tobacco-related companies are still finding loopholes in the laws.
For instance, in September of this year, the Food and Drug Administration banned the manufacture, distribution, marketing, or importing of fruit, candy, or clove flavored cigarettes in the United States.
The FDA passed the regulation several months after President Obama signed legislation that gives the agency the power to regulate tobacco in the United States. According to the FDA, flavors make cigarettes and other tobacco products more appealing to youth, and studies have shown that 17-year-old smokers are three times as likely to use flavored cigarettes as smokers older than the age of 25.
However, while the federal law bans flavored cigarettes, it does not specifically relate to other flavored tobacco products. It’s also unclear how the new federal legislation relates to products like blunt wraps, which are offered in fun, fruity flavors like “French Martini,” apple, blueberry, cherry vanilla, and are packaged in such a way that they appear like nothing more than a child’s fruit roll-up snack.
Some municipalities are taking the fight into their own hands as a means of closing some of those loopholes. In October, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law a ban on the sale of all flavored tobacco products, which includes a ban on flavored cigarettes, little cigars and chewing tobacco.
Kevin O’Flaherty, director of advocacy for D.C.-based group Tobacco Free Kids.org, said the New York City ban is the strictest in the country.
“The rest of the country does not have protections this strong… We’re hoping the FDA sees it as a potential to enhance its own law,” O’Flaherty explained.
On a more local level, the city of Boston passed a ban on the sale of blunt wraps last winter, arguing that the products are particularly harmful to youth because of the way they are marketed and because they are often used for marijuana. However, following the ban, several blunt-wrap manufacturers sued the city, claiming legislators were unfairly targeting them. In March, the Suffolk Superior Court upheld the city’s ban, although Redford said the case is in limbo as the manufacturers continue to fight it through the appeal process.
Redford said that it is not the aim of her program to reach out on the policy level until the Boston case is resolved.
Funding cuts as product marketing soars
Instead of trying to influence legislation, at this time Redford is trying to do her part to encourage adults to take a look around the next time they happen to be in a convenience store to assess what’s there. She is also making presentations about the products to local boards of health, community leaders and legislators, like state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead.
Although Ehrlich said she might not go as far as supporting a ban on some of the products like the blunt wraps, she supports the idea of furthering education.
“Because of the uncertainty of the final use of some products, awareness becomes the first line of defense,” Ehrlich said.
However, because of recent state budget cuts, funding for the North Shore Tobacco Control Program (a Board of Health collaborative), which covers nine North Shore communities, including Swampscott and Marblehead, has been drastically reduced. This past year, the state’s anti-smoking program, of the North Shore program is a part, was slashed by 60 percent. It took a further $500,000 hit just last week during the governor’s latest round of budget cuts, dropping it to $4.5 million.
Because of the cuts, the North Shore program has had to close its Lynn-based offices. At the moment, Redford is the program’s only full-time employee, and her office dropped from four per-diem staffers down to one. She worries that the budget cuts will indirectly effect people’s awareness of what’s going on in the industry at the local level.
“Obviously these are devastating cuts especially at a time when the industry is working so hard to attract and addict a new generation of youth customers by introducing all the emerging and crossover products,” Redford said. “I just do not believe that the tobacco industry is not taking full advantage of these volatile fiscal times with some belief that this is the prefect opportunity for them to slide under the radar with the hope that these products go unchecked, unnoticed and thus become unstoppable.”
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