Tobacco companies target kids, Utah health officials say

Don’t tell David Neville that those grape-flavored mini-cigars behind the counter at every local convenience store are aimed at mature smokers.

“They’re already hooked,” Neville says of longtime smokers. Instead, tobacco companies are targeting “the kid with the grape Slurpie that comes to the counter,” wondering if the sweetened nicotine will complement his drink, Neville says. Or whether the chocolate-mint flavored chew — packaged to look like chewing gum — will boost his reputation with peers.

As state legislators prepared to open debate on a perennially proposed tobacco tax hike, a lot of Utah parents may be unaware of the “mainstream” ways their children are being targeted by nicotine marketers, said Neville, director of the Utah Department of Health’s Tobacco Prevention and Control program.

While it’s difficult to compare addictions between tobacco, alcohol and hard drugs because they have different effects on the brain, quitting tobacco, once someone is addicted, “is as difficult as quitting heroin or cocaine,” he said.

Utah recently got an “F” from the American Lung Association for its lack of tobacco prevention and control spending — something controlled exclusively by state legislators, many of whom take money either directly or indirectly from tobacco companies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Utah legislators only provide about 35 percent of the recommended funding for tobacco control efforts.

Neville said 90 percent of people who begin using tobacco do so before the legal age of 19 — and the variety of tobacco products that appeal directly to children and teens continues to grow, along with the flavors used to disguise its taste.

The Lung Association also gave Utah a “D” for its relatively small tobacco tax -— currently 69.5 cents per cigarette pack — and an “F” for tobacco cessation programs. Neville said the latter focus “more on policy and less on services provided,” including the free Utah Tobacco Quit Line, 1-888-567-TRUTH. The confidential help line provides free nicotine patches or gum to those working to quit, and up to five free counseling sessions. The state also offers a free Web site at to help connect people with others trying to quit and to answer questions.

The Lung Association did give Utah an “A” in the smoke-free air category, noting improvement in laws that restrict smoking in public places.

Though the state has the lowest percentage of smokers in the nation, Neville said, more than 190,000 Utahns are still addicted, “and 80 percent of them don’t want to be.” Tobacco usage causes $369 million in annual smoking-attributable medical expenses and $294 million in lost productivity each year, Neville said.

Though retailers, in particular, have voiced opposition to the tax, Neville believes it’s simply a usage fee, like the gas tax. “If you don’t want to pay the gas tax, you don’t drive a car. You take public transit. It’s the same with tobacco. If you don’t want to pay it, then quit.”

He’s convinced that if the tax increase is approved, more people will stop smoking. He cited a 200 to 300 percent spike in calls to quit lines last year after a national tobacco tax increased last year.

“A lot of people want to quit,” he said. “They just need that final impetus to push them to where they really want to go.”


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