Tobacco Prevention Program raising awareness on smoking trends

Friday, January 29, 2016

With a smoking rate of 25.9 percent of the adult population, compared to 16.8 percent nationally, Arkansas usually ranks high in tobacco use. The state is currently 49th in the nation in smoking cessation. The rate of high school students who smoke in Arkansas is 19.1 percent, compared to 15.7 percent nationally, and the rate of male students who use smokeless tobacco is 24.2 percent in the state, compared with 15.7 percent nationally. The St. Bernards Tobacco Prevention Program has been gathering data on tobacco trends in Arkansas in the hopes of raising awareness about the issue and combating smoking in the state.

The program began through a grant from the Arkansas Department of Health's Tobacco Cessation Program in 2011 in Craighead County. It expanded to Poinsett and Mississippi Counties in 2013. In 2015, the program switched part of its coverage area from Mississippi to Lawrence County. The program has four goals: youth tobacco prevention, eliminating exposure to secondhand smoke, promoting tobacco cessation, and eliminating tobacco-related disparities. Among the program's successes, they have worked to educate city councils about the benefits of smoke-free environments, succeeding in getting city parks to go smoke-free, educated officers about Act 811 which makes it illegal to smoke with a child under the age of 14 in a vehicle, and created a tobacco prevention program for high schoolers with 183 students educated so far and 93 pledging to be tobacco- and nicotine-free.

Among the data the Tobacco Prevention Program released this week were their findings on tobacco marketing to youth, emerging tobacco trends, and the findings of the Standardized Tobacco Assessment for Retail Settings (STARS) surveys of Craighead, Lawrence, and Poinsett Counties.

Tobacco Prevention Coordinator Amy Whitener told media Monday that one thing they noticed among their surveys was how heavily the tobacco industry markets its products. For instance, she said retail stores were where most people aged 13-21 see advertisements for e-cigarettes with youth awareness of e-cigarette advertising from retail stores at 60 percent for ages 13-17 and 69 percent for ages 18-21, according to a study Legacy for Health conducted. Whitener said between 2011 and 2013, youth exposure to e-cigarette advertisements has risen 256 percent, and young adult exposure has risen 321 percent.

E-cigarettes and flavorings are a couple emerging trends the program has looked into. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), 7 out of 10 middle schoolers and high schoolers who smoke prefer flavored products. "We're highly concerned about menthol," Whitener said, citing research which suggests people who smoke products with menthol inhale deeper because of menthol's soothing and cooling effect.

Regarding e-cigarettes, Whitener said though their use is often called vaping, "it's not actually a vapor. It has been proven to be an aerosol that does have the low level of toxins which can cause cancer." Though the research is still young in the cancer-causing effects of e-cigarettes, Whitener noted that the particle concentration in e-cigarettes is high than it is in cigarette smoke and some of the same chemicals which lead to popcorn lung--a condition scarring lungs which was named after several cases in a popcorn factory in 2000--are also present in e-cigarettes. According to the CDC, 15.5 percent of high schoolers and 11.8 percent of middle schoolers use e-cigarettes.

Another troubling trend Whitener noted among tobacco and nicotine marketing were colorful packages and products which look like candy. Two products in particular she mentioned were Camel Orbs, which look similar to Tic Tacs, and Camel Strips, which look like Listerine Strips.

Regarding data from the STARS survey. Whitener and her team gathered data from six cities of comparable size in Craighead, Lawrence, and Poinsett Counties. They visited 38 stores that sold tobacco, 20 of which were in the Poinsett County cities surveyed: Marked Tree and Harrisburg. One of the big takeaways from the data is that while tobacco products were very visible at the stores, no store had any graphic warning signs about the health effects or signage with the number to call for help quitting (which is 1-800-QUIT-NOW). One good thing the data showed was that there was no advertising less than three feet from the floor, which is eye-level for a child, and there were no nicotine products located within 12 inches of candy.

Whitener said the program will use the data to raise awareness and that she would be visiting with mayors to let them know the results of the survey and talk about how products are marketed and what's marketed to youth.

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