Health department studying how tobacco is marketed to Douglas County youth

As you approach the doors at Presto Convenience Store on Iowa Street, you might notice a few tobacco advertisements on the glass walls. There are four of them, varying in size and all placed at an adult’s eye level.

These are just a few of the details that Erica Anderson, the health promotion specialist for the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, is paying attention to. She and others are working on a study that will catalog how tobacco and e-cigarette products are marketed — specifically to minors — in the Lawrence area.

“We decided we really wanted to know what kind of an issue Douglas County has in regard to point of sale (advertising) and begin to draft messages to kind of counter some of the messages that you see,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that from 2013 to 2014, e-cigarette use among middle and high schoolers tripled. It also surpassed the use of every other tobacco product among high schoolers.

The study involves Anderson and others evaluating over 90 stores with licenses to sell tobacco and e-cigarette products in Douglas County. The department is partnering with Kansas University journalism professor Yvonnes Chen on the project.

The health department study is funded with a $1.3 million grant from the CDC. Anderson said she still has about 20 stores left to check out, and an analysis of the data could be completed in June.

At each store, Anderson examines a number of characteristics. Is a school within sight? What kinds of cigarettes are available? Are there price promotions? Is there a health warning poster anywhere?

The environment at Presto wasn’t alarming to Anderson. Inside, there were a few price promotions and some leaflets at the counter for e-cigarettes, but nothing ostentatious. On an evaluation packet, there’s a box asking if the advertising is overwhelming. She left it blank.

That’s not the case everywhere. Anderson said she is finding that the ads at stores on Lawrence’s north and east sides — specifically where those of lower financial means tend to live — are a bit harder to ignore.

She chose one gas station along North Second Street in North Lawrence as example. There are eight tobacco and e-cigarette advertisements on the outside and they sit at a somewhat lower eye level.

A yellow one, more than a foot tall and wide, says electronic cigarettes are sold here. It tells viewers they can be smoked anywhere, any time (referring to the lack of regulation), and they are a “healthier smoking alternative.” This place got a check next to the “overwhelming” box on Anderson’s sheet.

The health industry as a whole has determined whether e-cigarettes are in fact a healthier option than regular cigarettes because their effects are not yet well documented. In any case, they still often contain nicotine, which is harmful to the brain, especially the developing brains of children, Anderson said.

According to preliminary results of the study, Chen said many of the stores marketing and selling these products are near places where youth tend to hang out — schools, parks and restaurants.

Anderson said the health department will create a map to illustrate how close the licensed business are to youth hang outs. She said the department may also try to hold a public forum on the study results.

“I think our public does need to be educated about the prevalence of tobacco marketing in today’s world,” Chen said.