2017-06-08 / Front Page

New Tobacco Products Fire Up Residents

By Olga Enger

In local convenience stores, it is difficult to miss the flood of marketing by the tobacco industry, pushing new products such as e-cigarettes, cigarillos and vapes. Marketing posters are on doors as customers enter the store, and colorful products are placed near the cash register, which is a prime selling location.

Many critics claim the products’ sweet flavors, such as “gummy bear” and “fruit loop,” are unabashedly targeting children. The products are cheap, placed near candy and have fun packaging and names.

To protect youth from exposure to the torrent of new products, Middletown Town Council is considering introducing a tobacco retailer license, which would enable the town to prohibit flavored tobacco and impose other restrictions. Nine Rhode Island municipalities have adopted a similar policy, which provides communities more control than the traditional state regulations. The first reading was held at the June 5 meeting.

“It’s about protecting our kids,” said Lori Verderosa of the Middletown Prevention Coalition, who worked with the state’s Department of Health to get the ordinance on the table. “These are tenacious market efforts by the industry.”

Middletown would be up against a strong force. Tobacco companies spend more than 90 percent of their marketing budget, or $10 billion a year, to have their products marketed and displayed in retail stores, according to state officials.

In-store advertising is effective. Even brief exposure to tobacco advertising influences adolescents to smoke, according to the 2008 National Cancer Institute Monograph.

Middletown High School junior Andrew Yang was one of around 10 residents that spoke in favor of the ordinance. His classmates understand the risks of smoking, but there is not the same level of information available about other products, he told the council.

“[My classmates] do it because it’s tasty and popular. But what strikes me as odd is they think it’s not harmful. They think there is no presence of nicotine,” said Yang.

Carolyn Craft, also a junior at Middletown High School, agreed.

“My friends use these products probably just because they are bored. They see cheap fun. Because that’s what these products are made to look like,” said Craft.

To maintain profits, the tobacco industry must attract young customers. Nearly nine out of 10 cigarette smokers first tried smoking by age 18, and 99 percent first smoked by age 26, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Fewer children are smoking cigarettes, but other tobacco use is on the upswing. While less than five percent of Middletown children in grades 7-12 reported smoking a cigarette within the past 30 days, 20 percent said they recently used another tobacco product. Over 33 percent reported it was either “sort of easy” or “very easy” to obtain tobacco products.

There are 17 retailers allowed to sell tobacco products in Middletown. Although no business or resident spoke against the proposal, one retailer spoke in favor of the new regulations.

“I think in our store we have a certain responsibility to our community,” said Tom Lyons, owner of Beach Wine and Liquors on Aquidneck Avenue. As a father and grandfather, he wants to protect local youth from these predatory marketing practices, he told the council.

The ordinance would not apply to a smoking bar or an electronic smoking establishment, which does not allow children. The annual license fee would be $100 and administered through the town clerk. Under the local law, retailers would be prohibited from selling flavored tobacco. Additionally, prices must be clearly displayed, and coupons or discounts would be prohibited.

The Middletown Police Department would enforce the license through two annual inspections, according to the ordinance. Violators would be fined $250 for a first offense, and $500 for a second and subsequent offenses. After three violations, the town may revoke the license.

Although the ordinance received a positive response from councilors, Town Administrator Shawn Brown said he had “practical concerns” about the proposal.

“The clerk’s office is under-resourced,” said Brown, about the requirement to process the annual license. “I have serious reservations about uniformed officers doing business regulation…There should be a business unit established to deal with these issues.”

The ordinance would allow Middletown to partner with the state’s CDC grant, which would translate to about $35,000 over a two-year period. However, Brown said the funds will likely not go towards offsetting program costs, but rather to the Middletown Prevention Collation for data collection. “I’m all about protecting children, but I think from the policy standpoint, there are other priorities,” he said.

Middletown Police Chief Anthony Pesare supported the spirit of the ordinance, but said he wanted to be clear that the inspections would cost the department resources. “The enforcement falls squarely on the police department’s shoulders,” he said.

Councilor Rick Lombardi, who has been an adamant supporter of local marijuana regulation, said the town has an obligation to stay on top of emerging risks to local children. “As I see this, no matter how much prevention you do, it’s almost never enough,” said Lombardi. “You can never get ahead of the curve.”

Councilor Barbara VonVillas said, as a long-time educator, she was unaware of the new tobacco products, and she stressed the importance of educating parents about their existence.

If approved, the ordinance would take effect upon passage, but enforcement would not begin until Nov. 1, 2017.

In other matters:

c Council approved the summer
meeting schedule for June 19, July
3 and Aug. 21.
c Council held a moment of silence for Henry Perry, a former
deputy chief of the Middletown
Fire Department.
c During the public forum, Middletown School Union President
Lisa Wood questioned the decision
to level-fund the schools with the
recent adoption of the fiscal 2018
budget. The chamber was standing room only with teachers, who
loudly applauded her remarks.
c Councilors said road race organizers must remove painted mile
markers, after Councilman Dennis
Turano complained they were not
cleaned and were unsightly.

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