Smart Approaches to Public Health: Big Tobacco 2.0

By , Published: April 10, 2015

Hello and welcome to the first proper blog entry on Smart Approaches to Public Health. It is a happy coincidence that the unveiling and launch of this blog was on the same day as another important unveiling.

Today, Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) released a video entitled “Big Tobacco 2.0.” The video draws parallels between the Tobacco industry and the emerging marijuana industry, or Big Marijuana. The video begins with a scene where several Big Tobacco industry heads, one-by-one, state in a Congressional hearing that their nicotine-laden products are not addictive. This is footage from 1994, not 1954. Today, it is unfathomable to think anyone could say with a straight face that tobacco products, and nicotine, are not addictive and seriously harmful to health. Yet, here it is:

We are seeing these scenes play out again now, in 2015. Except, it is now the heads of the marijuana industry trying to fool the public that their products are benign and not addictive. This despite the established science on the addictive nature of marijuana and the harms it poses to physical health and brain development. We have policies endorsing the use of marijuana to treat PTSD symptoms, even though we have science that says marijuana can worsen PTSD symptoms. We have some legalization advocates framing marijuana as a miracle drug for epilepsy despite reports that it is ineffective or can make matters worse for patients. This isn’t to deny medical potential of components of the marijuana plant. But we need to learn the lessons of tobacco and let science, not industry rhetoric, guide the way.

Big Tobacco 2.0 and The Appeal to Youth

The parallels between the tobacco and marijuana industry are quite striking. As a prevention professional who specializes in youth substance abuse prevention, I have been troubled by some of the mixed messages sent amidst marijuana legalization campaigns. The messages to imply, or flat-out state, that marijuana is a benign, harmless substance are messages that pose risks to our youth. We know from prevention science that there is a strong link between youths’ perception of harm for a substance and the rate at which youth use that drug. In fact, this chart below illustrates that relationship perfectly.

perception of harm and use

You can set your watch to this graph. Between the late 70’s and the early 90’s we see a steady increase in the perceived risk of harm of marijuana amongst 12th graders. This corresponds with a steady downward trend in marijuana use amongst those same 12th graders. Perception of risk tops out at the exact same time prevalence bottoms out.  As the perception of risk falls, use increases sharply. We are now in a period where perception of risk is starting another sharp decline. Right on schedule marijuana use amongst 12th graders is seeing a sharp increase. It would seem that it isn’t accidental that the sharp decreases in perception of risk have coincided with the efforts to legalize medical and recreational marijuana in several states. Here in Maine, we have data from the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey that shows high school students who believe there is no risk from regular marijuana use are nearly 8 times more likely to have used the drug.

Back to the video, another parallel between the tobacco and marijuana industry I find myself particularly concerned about are the sweet-flavored products geared towards children. The tobacco industry is notorious for the use of sweet flavors to hook youth and to trick them into thinking these flavored products were “safer.”

We are already seeing this trend from the marijuana industry. This is especially true with the edible products that have emerged in Colorado.

thc easter cookiesthc fruity pebble bar

thc gummy bearsMarijuana Easter cookies, Fruity Pebbles bars infused with THC, marijuana gummy bears. You put these products side by side with their non-marijuana equivalents and kids can’t tell them apart. This is what is fueling the 268% increase in 0-5-year-old exposures in Colorado. These products are certainly very appealing to older children and teenagers who know precisely what they are. It is a way to package marijuana to make it seem “safer” and more benign. A page from the Big Tobacco playbook.

As Maine now faces four different plans to legalize recreational marijuana in Maine, it is important for us to consider the lessons learned from tobacco. Many pundits will refer to the “social experiment in Colorado.” The thing is, we already have the results of the Big Tobacco experiment. We’ve seen first hand, tragically, how an industry run amok can harm youth, public health, and communities.

We’ve seen this movie already.  Are we really that unsure about how it would end with Big Marijuana in the leading role? SPOILER ALERT: It won’t be a happy ending.