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Many California cities have banned flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes. San Diego should be next.

Source: San Diego Tribune

Weber, M.D., is a state assemblymember who represents the 79th Assembly District. She lives in La Mesa.

There is no vaccine for addiction, which means global pandemics like the COVID-19 pandemic will come and go while the public health crisis of tobacco addiction could rage on indefinitely — with the most devastating impact in Black neighborhoods.

Big tobacco corporations want it that way, which is why they developed highly addictive minty-menthol cigarettes, the original candy-flavored tobacco, and spent decades and hundreds of millions of advertising dollars towards hooking Black children on nicotine-filled candy-flavored cigarettes.

It’s also the reason why more than 100 jurisdictions across the state — including Los Angeles County and the city of Long Beach — have taken a stand for health and equity and ended the sale of flavored tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, menthol cigarettes and cheap sweet cigars and cigarillos. San Diego should be next. If we fail to do so, we will only embolden a tobacco industry already gearing up to protect and expand its profitable but deadly business model on the statewide 2022 ballot.

A new study from UC San Diego adds a renewed sense of urgency to our need to protect public health by ending the sale of menthol cigarettes. The data shows smokers who use menthol cigarettes are 53 percent less likely than non-menthol smokers to successfully quit smoking for an entire year.

Driving these staggering statistics are 60 years of slick marketing schemes — advertisements featuring models with darker skin tones and even the distribution of packs of cigarettes in Black neighborhoods for free — and a dark science. A minty-tasting agent derived from peppermint oil is used to flavor menthol cigarettes and make them more palatable to consumers, so they are easier to start and harder to quit. It’s no wonder why 85 percent of Black smokers today use menthol cigarettes, and smoking is a leading cause of death in Black neighborhoods across the country.

Big Tobacco has turned this profitable-but-deadly combination of flavors and marketing onto a new target: children.

By pushing e-cigarettes that come in brightly colored packaging and candy flavors like bubblegum, strawberry shortcake and gummy bear, Big Tobacco has the recipe to hook kids into becoming the next generation of nicotine users. Today some 3.6 million middle and high-school students use e-cigarettes, and 80 percent started with a flavored product.

California has always been at the forefront of tobacco prevention policies. In 2016, voters in California approved Proposition 56, which increased taxes on cigarettes by $2 per pack to help fund cessation programs for smokers trying to quit. Today, those call centers help identify and refer tobacco users to the California Smokers’ Helpline, which offers cessation assistance online, over the phone and through mobile apps. Medi-Cal recipients can receive free nicotine patches. Federally qualified health care centers receive state support to identify and treat nicotine addiction.

As a physician, I know we have more work to do to protect kids from getting hooked on nicotine, and the only logical path forward is to take these flavored products off the shelves.

California aimed to do exactly that when, fighting against Big Tobacco’s tens of millions of dollars in lobbying and advertising, the state Legislature overwhelmingly passed Senate Bill 793 last year. The bipartisan and popular law would end the sale of candy-flavored e-cigarettes and minty menthol cigarettes statewide. Now, tobacco companies are gearing up to unleash millions more to overturn the law.

Flavors are, and always have been, the tobacco industry’s key to luring consumers into getting hooked on nicotine; the industry knows how hard it is for smokers to quit once they’ve started using a flavored product.

In the coming months, expect Big Tobacco to use every trick in its deceptive playbook to stop California from keeping kids safe from nicotine addiction. San Diego, as the second-largest city in California, must take the lead in stopping this public health crisis by ending the sale of candy-flavored nicotine and minty-menthol cigarettes for good.