How cigarette companies are marketing to children in downtown neighborhoods
I took my first puff of a cigarette at 8 years old. I wanted to be cool and macho and fit in with the neighborhood kids.
Access to cigarettes was easy; I looked no further than my local corner market. In those days, the cigarettes were right next to the candy bars. I would tell store clerks I was buying them for an adult. It was easy and I was hooked in no time.
I kept smoking until I was 40 years old. Luckily, I found the strength to quit through nicotine replacement therapy and the support of friends who had successfully quit themselves. Now I spend my days helping others quit, running the SmokeFree Project at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in the West Village.
In addition to helping people develop a quit plan, build a support system and effectively handle relapse pressure once they have quit smoking, the Center also works with the Manhattan Smoke-Free Partnership as part of the New York City Coalition for a Smoke-Free City. I, along with our Youth Organizers Against Tobacco Advertisement interns, advocate against tobacco marketing that targets young people.
New York City is home to 11,500 licensed tobacco retailers, 75 percent of which are located within 1,000 feet of a school. The Partnership conducted surveys on the Lower East Side of Manhattan between 14th and Delancey streets and found a higher prevalence of tobacco marketing near schools.
The Center and the Partnership are working to decrease tobacco marketing to youth in stores and window displays near schools. We are bringing attention to this growing problem by speaking to community boards and participating in awareness events throughout Manhattan.
We participated in the American Lung Association’s “Take a Walk in Our Shoes” campaign. Center youth took community leaders on walking tours of Manhattan, including the Lower East Side and Chinatown, to spotlight the huge presence of youth-targeted tobacco advertising. The youth pointed out the hundreds of storefronts loaded with tobacco advertising designed to appeal to young people and encourage them to smoke. Our goal is to prompt further dialogue about the immense need to limit tobacco marketing to youth.
The stakes could not be higher. According to the Coalition, approximately 17,000 New York City high school students smoke and a third of them will die prematurely. Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States and 90 percent of regular smokers start before the age of 18.
The reason so many kids start smoking today are the same as when I took up the addiction when I was young; studies show that the more tobacco marketing kids see, the more likely they are to smoke.
As the Coalition noted: “Kids see tobacco whenever they go into a store to buy water, gum or candy. They see it on the store’s windows and directly behind the cash register when they make their purchase. This is not by accident. The tobacco industry knows youth spend a lot of time in stores, so this is the place where they spend their money.
“In New York State alone, the tobacco industry spends $1.1 million every day marketing its deadly products. This is more than the amount spent on junk food, soda and alcohol marketing combined.”
It will take a multi-pronged approach to counter this destructive advertising blitz. We must decrease the visibility of tobacco marketing in stores, limit the sale of tobacco products around schools and prohibit the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies. We also need citizens who care about this issue to speak out, write their local officials, pen letters to the editors and testify at community board meetings. According to a 2011 public opinion survey, 65 percent of New Yorkers support limiting tobacco retailers near schools.
On Jan. 10, Community Board 1’s Youth Committee passed a resolution regarding youth exposure to tobacco marketing. On Jan. 24, the full board vote was tabled until the Quality of Life Committee weighs in on the resolution, at a date to be determined.
I don’t want one more young person to walk the same decades-long smoking path that I took. Thankfully, I was able to quit as an adult, but had I not been targeted at such an impressionable age, I would have avoided years of unhealthy living and increased risk for serious illness or death.
The only way to stop youth tobacco use in our city is by stamping out the level of direct advertising access tobacco companies have to our children. We all have a responsibility to shield our most vulnerable from the irresponsible and manipulative messages that make it seem hip or fashionable to smoke or chew. Tobacco use is neither hip nor fashionable. It is a one-way ticket to ill health and a potentially shortened life span.
Adam Steiner is the SmokeFree Project counselor at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in the West Village.
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