Tobacco in Oregon: Cheap, sweet, plentiful and sold at kids’ eye level

A new statewide assessment of Oregon retailers that carry tobacco shows the reach of tobacco industry marketing. The report highlights ads and products designed to appeal to youth, as well as heavy marketing to communities of color and people living with lower incomes.

Oregon Health Authority worked with county health department staff, tribes, community partners and volunteers across the state to conduct the assessment of nearly 2,000 Oregon tobacco retailers. This week it released a report of the findings, along with recommended strategies to make retail outlets healthier for all Oregonians.

“The tobacco industry spends more than $100 million per year to market its products in Oregon communities,” said Lillian Shirley, director of the OHA Public Health Division. “It pours most of this money into convenience stores, grocery stores and other retailers where people shop daily. They know that kids who see tobacco marketing are more likely to start smoking and that tobacco ads trigger cravings for people trying to quit.”

In Lincoln County, OHA data shows that 9,500 adults regularly smoke cigarettes and 5,460 have a serious illness caused by tobacco. OHA has 182-recorded tobacco-related deaths and $18.8 million spent on tobacco-related medical care.

The assessment report included these key findings:

Statewide, nine out of 10 tobacco retailers sold fruit- and candy-flavored e-cigarettes or cigarillos. These included e-cigarette flavors such as “Pebbles Donuts” and “Tropical Fusion.” Flavored tobacco products appeal to kids and mask the natural harshness of tobacco. Four out of five Oregon youth who have used tobacco started with a flavored product. Menthol is also a flavor, and 96 percent of retailers carried menthol products.

In Lincoln County, they found that 98 percent of retailers selling tobacco sold flavored products.

The tobacco industry markets menthol products heavily in African American communities. Partly as a result, 60 percent of African American youth prefer Newport (menthol) cigarettes compared to 22 percent of white youth.

Statewide, 64 percent of retailers used coupons and other discounts to make tobacco more affordable. Two in five retailers in Lincoln County offered price promotions or discounts and 17 percent advertised cigarillos for less than $1.

Tobacco advertising appeared on the outside of nearly 50 percent of stores in the statewide assessment. Inside the stores, 20 percent of retailers placed tobacco products next to candy and toys. Large tobacco displays at the checkout counter, called “power walls,” have been shown to encourage impulse tobacco buys among people trying to quit.

Three in 10 retailers in Lincoln County advertised tobacco or e-cigarettes outside the store and 11 percent of stores sold their products within 12 inches of toys, candy, gum, drinks or ice cream.

The report comes at a time when communities are increasingly concerned about flavored tobacco use among youth, especially e-cigarette products like Juul. In 2018 Oregon began enforcing a new tobacco minimum legal sales age of 21. Initial results of the law show it may reduce the number of youth who start smoking. The new retail assessment report illustrates that more work remains to be done.

Some cities and counties, like Klamath Falls and Multnomah County, are using tobacco retail licensure to track the sale of tobacco products, ensure retailers comply with the new sales age, and keep tobacco products out of the hands of kids. Clatsop County is considering a similar proposal.

“Clatsop County school officials and public health staff have reported students using e-cigarettes and other nicotine-delivery devices at alarming rates,” said Julia Hesse, Clatsop County health promotion specialist. “It seems inconceivable that we need a license to sell Christmas trees and own dogs in Oregon, but not to sell tobacco or nicotine products. We need a better way to hold retailers accountable if they illegally sell to youth.”