By Gary Kirkilas
Imagine seeing an ad featuring Ryder and Marshall from “Paw Patrol” lighting up cigarettes and smoking together.
It’s hard to imagine that happening, but in 1961, beloved cartoon characters Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble happily smoked cigarettes in an advertisement for Winston. Most children of this era could easily recite the advertising slogan: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should”.
Now imagine a teenager walking to school today and seeing a billboard with a picture of a 10 foot cannabis leaf on it and the cheeky slogan “I like big buds and I can’t lie” .
You don’t need to imagine it, of course, because these ads are common now that recreational marijuana use is legal in many states. Some dispensary social media posts even feature familiar cartoon characters and offer branded merchandise like caps and t-shirts.
These legal cannabis companies and dispensaries have certainly done their homework. Some are using tactics from the tried-and-true alcohol and tobacco company playbook to target young consumers — and hook them for life.
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The product is different; the tactic is not.
We should be more outraged by that. We know the very serious risks of smoking. It is illegal for tobacco companies to advertise on television and billboards, or to sponsor sports and entertainment events. One way or another, cannabis companies are allowed to do these things in most states where it’s legal.
As of May 24, 18 states and Washington, DC have legalized recreational cannabis for people age 21 and older. Other states are likely to join, so new challenges arise in preventing cannabis use among adolescents.
We cannot ignore the important lessons of the past. Those of us who are tasked with protecting children and advocating for their health and safety are confused and frustrated by the growing appeal of these products for children and adolescents.
Cannabis companies can strategically appeal to young people to ensure decades of engaged users. Some people might shrug their shoulders at that. Maybe they don’t see the links to the past or they don’t realize the potential harm.
Proponents might point to the defense that cannabis is a different and less harmful substance than cigarettes. Let’s examine this argument.
Smoking any substance releases large amounts of tar, toxins and carcinogens, which damage all sensitive lung tissue. This increases the risk of cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Especially for young people, a growing body of research shows that cannabis can interfere with memory, attention, and problem-solving abilities in the developing adolescent brain. These learning disabilities are associated with negative social outcomes, such as lower high school completion rates.
There is strong evidence also correlating early cannabis use with increased rates of negative mental health problems, as well as the risk of other illicit drug use disorders. People with underlying mood disorders have an increased risk of suicide and psychosis. Additionally, although cannabis may not have the same type of physical addiction pattern as tobacco, cannabis addiction does exist and the risk is well established.
We might be able to contribute to these effects occurring more frequently to the exponential increase in levels of THC – the main psychoactive compound in cannabis that gets people high.
Cannabis consumed in the 1960s and 1970s had THC levels of 3% to 5%, producing mild euphoria. Now, with genetically engineered cannabis plants bred to produce THC levels of 30% and extraction processes to deliver resins that are essentially 100% pure THC, these adverse health consequences come as no surprise. .
Another specious argument that has been used against efforts to limit cannabis advertising is that marketing does not affect youth consumption. Ongoing research shows something different.
A 2017 study sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked high school students about their substance use behaviors. It revealed that 52% said they had been exposed to cannabis advertising on the internet, 32% on television and 16% on billboards. Teens who reported being exposed to a mode of advertising had a 60% increased likelihood of being current cannabis users.
We should urge our state legislators to protect children. Some states have already implemented restrictions on cannabis advertisements targeting young people.
Parents and teachers: Write and call your legislators and let them know that they must put children and students first. Healthcare Providers: Make cannabis reform a priority in your advocacy efforts.
The cannabis industry likely views children as potential lifelong customers. We should consider them inherently innocent and in need of our protection.
Dr. Gary Kirkilas is a pediatrician in Phoenix and a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. © 2022, Tribune Content Agency