A Keizer kid under the age of 18 has about a 50/50 chance of walking into a River Road business and walking out with a pack of cigarettes they paid for.
That’s according to numbers provided based on Oregon Health Authority inspections in 2015. According to 2016 figures, the successful purchase of tobacco by minors was down to about 14 percent, but it’s difficult to compare year-over-year, said Inga Suneson, a health educator with the Marion County Health Department (MCHD).
“Because the teams don’t go to the same locations at the same times, there’s no real control number,” Suneson said.
The numbers themselves are alarming, Keizer has one of the worst rates of tobacco sales to minors in all of Marion County – Salem averages about a 13 percent rate with exponentially more outlets – and there are no inspections of vaping shops that now line River Road.
To arrive at the aforementioned numbers, OHA sends 16-year-olds paired with retired Oregon State Police officers to tobacco-selling retailers and successful sales are logged. The teens are even look-tested by others to make sure they appear underage.
Suneson and MCHD Prevention Program Supervisor Kerryann Bouska set out last year to take the temperature of local jurisdictions’ openness to increasing regulation of tobacco products in all forms. The process included interviewing as many city councilors and mayors as they could regarding the potential support for new policies and regulations.
Suneson and Bouska are concerned about tobacco use by youth in all forms, but especially given an onslaught of new products seemingly aimed at the youth market.
Federal rules banned flavored cigarettes in 2009, but new products quickly took their place.
“Cigarettes have a minimum pack price, but you can roll flavored tobacco in brown paper and sell them two for $1.29,” Suneson said. “A lot of parents don’t go into the gas station when they are getting their fill-ups, we have to remind them that this is part of their world.”
The new products, dubbed “little cigars” and often in brightly-colored packages, sidestep the federal rules.
“It’s constantly evolving and we’re chasing them all the time trying to keep up,” Suneson said.
Current penalties for selling to underage users are also less-than-helpful. The clerk selling the tobacco is the one cited not the retailer.
“That means the owner can put the blame on individual clerks rather than establishing better policies for the whole store,” Bouska said.
The latest trend the pair is trying to catch up to is vaping.
“The idea that vaping is a better choice than using tobacco in another form is just erroneous. Taking superheated liquid into your lungs is not healthy,” Bouska said.
Vaping pens can also be used to smoke cannabis oil without the distinct associated odor.
Suneson said the general scientific consensus is that vaping is not the effective quitting tool it is sometime sold as.
“More often people start vaping and continue using traditional tobacco. The amount of nicotine in vaping liquid is also anybody’s guess,” Suneson said.
Also, because a single vaping tank can last for hours, it’s likely that vapers are ingesting more nicotine than they would otherwise because they no longer reach the natural end of a cigarette, she added.
Currently, Oregon does not require a license to sell tobacco products – even though one is required for selling Christmas trees and owning a dog – but that is the part Marion County health would like to change. Proposed legislation at the state level often gets hung up in the process, so MCHD is advocating for local jurisdictions to take up the issue.
It would start by establishing a citywide tobacco retailer licensing program and that would allow enforcement of associated rules, which could range from regular audits of the kind OHA performs to even increasing the purchasing age to 21. Suneson said roughly 90 percent of underage tobacco users are supplied by those age 18 to 21.
While middle school and high school students learn how to avoid things like peer pressure and deconstruct advertising campaigns, which are essential skills, more could be done to protect youth from the dangers of tobacco use, Bouska said.
“We have the tendency to put the onus of refusal on the youth, and their frontal lobe that includes reasoning and logic are still developing until the age of 25,” she said. “The economy is important, but at what health cost? And what could the (policy) umbrella do for our youth?”
Suneson suggested putting yourself in the shoes of a 15-year-old with all the power of Google in your pocket.
“If you’re 15 and do a quick Google search on vaping you will find arguments on both sides,” Suneson said.
Choosing which to believe, at a young age, is likely a better reflection of desire than informed decision-making, she said.