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Vote yes on Prop E, say no to big tobacco
A child holds a box of Vanilla Wafers (left) and Vanilla Vape juice (right). Supporters of Proposition E argue that flavored tobacco products are designed to entice children. Courtesy of Sheila Hernandez

A few years ago, I was checking my son’s pants pockets; my usual routine, trying to keep candy and markers from ruining our washing machine. I was shocked and angry to find an e-cigarette, and even more upset to find that it was watermelon flavored, and decorated like a candy wrapper.  I couldn’t help feeling like this was designed to attract my kid, much like Joe Camel, who public health activists fought to remove from the candy aisle in stores years back.

The author of the commentary, Roberto Ariel Vargas (third from left), with wife Maria Sanchez (far right), son Tonalli and daughter Aztaxelli. Photo: Gustavo Rodriguez

Today, I have two teenagers in high school, and they tell me they know a number of their classmates who started “juul-ing” to look cool, but are now hooked. A juul is one of the many vaporizers on the market now using flavored liquids to deliver addictive nicotine, in addition to formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals. My kids tell me cucumber and mint are the favored flavors at their school. Mijo admitted trying it, but said it was really strong, and he didn’t like how it made him feel. I am thankful for that, at least.

In my work at University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), I help make sure the latest research makes a difference in the world by changing how we prevent and treat disease. For example: physicians discovered consumption of liquid sugar increases diabetes risk; we worked to inform policymakers how to get people to drink less sugar—like with a soda tax. One current effort is to help people understand that e-cigarettes are not harmless; our researchers found that chemicals in e-cigarettes are harmful to our health.

Tobacco companies claim vaping helps people quit smoking; research shows vaping introduces a new generation of kids to candy flavored nicotine and makes them more likely to use tobacco for the rest of their lives. They aren’t exactly the perfect tool for harm reduction for people who already smoke; they still increase cancer risk. Many teenagers and young adults are also using honey, grape and other flavored tobacco wraps for “blunts”; smoking marijuana in flavored tobacco, increasing their chances of addiction to tobacco and exposing them to the health harms of tobacco, including cancer.  

Researchers also found the tobacco industry targets African Americans with marketing of menthols and that menthols actually increase the health harms of tobacco use. The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council and the SF Cancer Initiative (SFCAN) shared science with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to inform a local ordinance—with unanimous board support—to ban sales of candy flavored tobacco products and menthols in San Francisco. The late Mayor Ed Lee signed this into law last summer.

That sparked a backlash from the tobacco industry, which is trying to overturn the law with a June 5th ballot measure.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company is still the sole funder of the No on E campaign, and so far has spent over $11 million to fight this health policy passed by SF policymakers, claiming government overreach.  

According to UCSF professor Stanton Glantz, PhD:  “they never mention their true motivation: RJR wants to protect its sales of menthol and other flavored tobacco products.”  

The Yes on E campaign so far has less than $2 million. Donors include the Tobacco Free Kids Action Fund, Michael Bloomberg, the American Cancer Society, The American Heart Association and the American Lung Association.

In my opinion, this is a fight for social justice against large corporations who don’t care about our health, but care about their profits. Targeting our children with candy-flavored products that we know are harmful to health is wrong! Targeting black folks with menthols, when we know menthol makes cigarettes an even worse threat to our health is an injustice! The tobacco companies say this is about consumer choice, that prohibitions don’t work, but we only saw declines in smoking after we passed laws to ban smoking indoors, stopped allowing children to buy cigarettes with a note from their parent, banned sales of tobacco in vending machines.

Ironically, tobacco is sacred to me. I use it in ceremony and for making offerings, in the traditions of my ancestors. But, my elders tell me: we don’t need to smoke it to pray with it. And adding chemicals in a lab is no way to treat a sacred plant.

We need regulation to protect the health of the public, especially when corporations spend billions to sell their addictive products. On June 5, San Francisco voters get to decide who has your best interests at heart: RJ Reynolds, or the American Heart Association.

Roberto Ariel Vargas, MPH.

Mission Native

*Navigator, Community Engagement and Health Policy Program, UCSF

*Steering Committee Member, Chicano/ Latino/ Indigena Health Equity Coalition

Clinical and Translational Science Institute

University of California, San Francisco

*Council Member, National Council of Research Advocates, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health

 *title is  for identification purposes only and does not represent the position of the institutions or programs named

Story by: Roberto Ariel Vargas