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Shawn Yardley of Bangor is the CEO of Community Concepts and Community Concepts Finance Corp. He is a former director of Bangor Public Health and past president of Maine Public Health Association.
Our kids deserve better than a lifetime of addiction.
I’ve spent my career working to give every child a fighting chance to live a healthy, hopeful and productive life. In partnership with hundreds of dedicated individuals and community organizations in central and northern Maine, I’ve had the privilege of helping to create early childhood education opportunities, build affordable housing and connect families with a family doctor or nurse.
Perhaps most importantly, I’ve worked to prevent tobacco use and nicotine addiction among youth and young adults. Unfortunately, the tobacco industry is trying to do just the opposite.
The tobacco industry knows that if they don’t hook our kids by age 21, there is only a small chance they will be able to do so. The industry also knows that the growing, developing brain is extremely susceptible to nicotine addiction. That’s why they run billion-dollar marketing campaigns designed to make tobacco an appealing part of every youth culture, particularly young people already feeling “on the outside,” marginalized from their peers.
It’s a worst-case scenario for parents: Our children are the targets of an industry that profits from addiction — an industry that will do and say almost anything to increase sales and avoid regulation, even though their product is literally deadly.
I know what it’s like from both angles. I’m a former smoker and I’m also the parent of seven children. I lived with the concern that my children might experiment with tobacco products, especially flavored products, and quickly find themselves addicted.
Cotton Candy, Gummi Bear, Pop Tart and even Unicorn Puke. These are flavors from a candy store, meant to lure and hook kids. There are now more than 15,000 candy, mint, dessert and fruit-flavored tobacco products being sold, and they’re everywhere in our schools. For every five kids who use tobacco, four of them start with a flavored product. It’s no surprise that tobacco use among Maine youth has been skyrocketing.
Half of youth smokers smoke menthols, which are easier to start with because menthol numbs the tongue and throat, masking the harsh taste of tobacco. I’m sure most of us could name a beloved family member or friend who started with menthol cigarettes and ended up with cancer, COPD, or heart disease. Too many died early as a result.
And now, almost 1 in 3 Maine high school students use e-cigarettes. This explosion of “vaping” started with Juul, a high-tech device disguised as a USB drive, making it hard to spot by teachers, coaches and parents. One Juul pod contains as much nicotine as a pack of 20 cigarettes. While almost all e-cigarettes contain nicotine, kids often say it’s just harmless flavoring.
E-cigarettes are just one example of how the tobacco industry has adapted their products and their marketing tactics, often in cunning ways, to continue luring their “replacement smokers.”
We can’t stand by and let the tobacco industry hook another generation of Maine children. While federal and state policymakers ponder their options, Bangor children are getting addicted to nicotine every day because of candy, fruit, mint, and menthol flavored tobacco products.
I’m proud of the leadership role that the city of Bangor has often taken in protecting the health of our kids. When the city council voted to prohibit smoking in cars with children, state lawmakers were quick to see the value and follow suit. This should empower us, as a community of parents, educators, employers, health professionals and people who care about our children and our neighbors, to stand up to the tobacco industry.
Our children can’t wait. I urge the Bangor City Council to take long overdue action to protect our kids by ending the sale of all flavored tobacco products. Together we can give the next generation a fair shot at a healthy and productive future, free from tobacco addiction.