Candy-flavored tobacco is a trick, not a treat—and it’s for sale in your neighborhood

Jars filled of colorful flavored tobacco products

Quick Summary

Tobacco companies market their addictive products to Oregon kids and teens by making them look, smell and taste like candy. These companies are so adept at this targeted trickery, many adults don’t even notice it. Let’s take a closer look at the ways that our communities help, or harm, our health.

Every day, tobacco companies market their addictive products to Oregon kids and teens by making them look, smell and taste like candy. Tobacco companies are so adept at this targeted trickery, many adults don’t even notice it.

For all of us who care about Oregon and the ways that our communities help, or harm, our health, it’s time to take a closer look.

  • A wide array of tobacco products, easily accessible to kids and teens today, are packaged and flavored to be nearly indistinguishable from candy.
  • These flavored little cigars, cigarillos and hookah tobacco are dressed up in shiny, brightly-colored wrappers and tins.
  • They are sweetened with the same chemicals used to flavor popular kids’ products like LifeSavers™ and Kool-Aid™.
  • Despite fruity and kid-friendly names like grape, chocolate, “vivid vanilla” and “cherry crush,” these products contain nicotine and are as dangerous and addictive as cigarettes.

Tobacco companies say they add sweet and fruity flavors to tobacco because grownups like sweet stuff, too. Yet new numbers show that Oregon kids are far more likely than adults to use flavored tobacco.

Among youth tobacco users, more than half (60%) of 8th graders and more than two-thirds (68%) of 11th graders used flavored tobacco, according to the 2015 Oregon Healthy Teens survey. In contrast, about 15 percent of adult tobacco users in Oregon use flavored tobacco products according to the most recent Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey.

Clearly, tobacco companies’ targeted marketing to young people is working. Their tactics are on display in the gas stations, convenience stores and other retailers where most tobacco is sold in Oregon.Young people visit these stores often: More than half of 8th graders (58%) and 11th graders (57%) in Oregon shop in a convenience store at least once a week.

Over the past few years, public health workers and community members in every Oregon county coordinated visits to stores that sell tobacco and documented that nearly all of them—nine in ten— sell flavored tobacco products (when menthol cigarettes are included, that percentage climbs to 98 percent).

Tobacco companies claim these flavored tobacco products, such as cotton candy flavored cigarillos, aren’t meant for kids, who can’t legally buy them. Yet the data clearly show that the majority of kids who use tobacco products are using flavored tobacco products. Because the candy and fruit flavors attract kids—and because they mask the natural harsh taste of tobacco—they make it easier for kids to experiment with tobacco, and easier for kids to become addicted.

In the case of menthol-flavored tobacco products, that minty flavor also has a soothing effect on the lungs that reduces the irritation and discomfort associated with smoking—similar to the way a mentholated cough drop soothes a sore, scratchy throat.

An Oregon retailer sells flavored little cigars next to candy.

Fortunately, a growing number of Oregon kids won’t be fooled by the tobacco companies’ candy-flavored tactics. Students in Hood River High School’s Health Media Club and the Rebels of Portland’s Madison High School are educating their siblings and peers about how tobacco companies target young people, and about the dangers of tobacco. These teens set an empowering example for the rest of us for how to push back against tobacco companies’ influence and harmful effects on all Oregonians.

We can join them by noticing what’s for sale in our communities, talking with the young people in our lives about what we find, and sharing photos on social media to #whatsforsale.

We can connect with the Oregon Tobacco Prevention and Education Program (TPEP) coordinators in our individual counties and tribes to meet others who care about these issues and are working to make our communities healthier.

We can help young Oregonians avoid a lifetime of addiction and build a healthier state—by refusing to fall for the sweet tricks of the tobacco companies.

Karen Girard, MPA, is the former Manager of Oregon Health Authority’s Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention section.


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