By Monica Caffey | Special for CalMatters
Last year, the California Legislature passed the toughest law in the nation to protect kids like mine from getting hooked on Big Tobacco’s menthol cigarettes and sugary-sweet, candy-flavored e-cigarettes. As a parent and a volunteer advocate for Parents Against Vaping E-cigarettes, I felt like I could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
The feeling was short-lived. A month before this life-saving law was set to take effect, the tobacco industry submitted signatures to reverse this measure through a referendum on the 2022 statewide ballot.
Candy-flavored products hook kids on nicotine. Tobacco companies know this. Using flavors like cotton candy, bubble gum and gummy bears, they have created an epidemic of e-cigarette use among our youth. One in five high school students now use vape products and 81% who have ever used a tobacco product started with a flavored one.
As chair of the Behavioral Health Commission of San Bernardino County, I know that in addition to harming teens’ developing lungs, these tobacco products contain enormous amounts of nicotine that completely rewire adolescents’ developing brains, creating irreversible cognitive changes and potentially leading to years of further addiction.
As an African-American mother to two teenagers, I’m particularly concerned about the sharp rise in popularity of menthol vapes. Teens who vape are four times more likely to turn to combustible cigarettes, migrating to whatever flavored products are available. We already know that 90% of Afrian American smokers choose menthol, mostly because Big Tobacco has spent millions to target Black consumers — leading to generational nicotine addiction and disproportionate rates of death from cardiovascular disease in our community.
It’s the simple reason why hundreds of parents, organizations and students who battled Big Tobacco to enact California’s flavored tobacco restrictions are committed to defeating this referendum: our children’s lives and their health hangs in the balance.
The last time these companies picked a fight with voters in 2016, they lost by a whopping 29 percentage points when Californians approved a $2 per pack tax on cigarettes and vape products. No matter how much money the tobacco industry spends to deceive the public about the deadly risk of using its products, voters increasingly see through their cloud of lies to embrace the truth.
Regardless, Big Tobacco continues to return to its old tricks: lying to voters.
Last month, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids Action Fund, American Heart Association, Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes and other tobacco control groups called for an investigation of paid signature gatherers who were misleading voters about the referendum. Petition circulators told voters that their signature would help stop kids from buying flavored tobacco when, in fact, the opposite is true.
This referendum must not be allowed to qualify until these issues are thoroughly investigated and resolved.
If the referendum proceeds, California’s flavor ban is effectively delayed for 22 months. Meanwhile, the tobacco industry will make $1.1 billion – $1.64 million per day – from menthol cigarette sales alone. More importantly, 37,000 high school students will become e-cigarette users and many will become Big Tobacco customers for life.
The stakes of this fight could not be higher. As we fight for our kids, tobacco companies will try to convince us their candy-flavored tobacco products aren’t aimed directly at kids. By upholding California’s tobacco flavor ban, we will help young people break free from tobacco, prevent more kids from ever becoming addicted and protect a generation from suffering a lifetime of health consequences.
Let’s stop Big Tobacco from cashing in while killing our kids. It’s time to turn the tables and put Big Tobacco in a box.
Monica Caffey is chair of the San Bernardino Behavioral Health Commission. She is also an advocate with PAVe, a national organization founded by concerned moms in response to youth vaping. She wrote this column for CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.