Opinion

War rages on tobacco | Klaas

New smokeless tobacco products are on the market, some of which kids can pop in their mouths like mints, warned Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a national expert on tobacco issues and noted whistleblower on the deceptions of the tobacco industry. - Mark Klaas/Auburn Reporter
New smokeless tobacco products are on the market, some of which kids can pop in their mouths like mints, warned Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a national expert on tobacco issues and noted whistleblower on the deceptions of the tobacco industry.
— image credit: Mark Klaas/Auburn Reporter

A teacher in America made a startling discovery in her sixth-grade classroom the other day. A student, a 13-year-old girl, was eating a new variety of Tic Tacs, but they weren’t the small sweet things she had been led to believe.

Try nicotine mints disguised as candy.

"The industry skinned a new cat," said Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a scientist and tobacco prevention advocate who visited Auburn last week to speak with health care professionals, community leaders and students about the insidious dangers of tobacco use.

The good doctor's visit to Rainier Middle School was part of his tireless global crusade against tobacco use. He spends 182 days a year in schools throughout the world – including medical and law schools – reiterating the unhealthy perils of tobacco use and its devastating effects on people, young and old.

Wigand, one of the highest ranking tobacco whistleblowers, also introduced and described the latest tactic in the tobacco war. The industry, as Wigand warned, has unveiled a new generation of smokeless, flavored tobacco products that look like breath mints or breath-freshening strips but with life-threatening consequences for children who either mistake them for candy or use them instead of cigarettes.

Such products might look like Tic Tacs or M&M's, Wigand explained, but are actually nicotine alternatives used in places where smoking isn't allowed.

The tobacco industry is at it again, Wigand said, and parents should be aware.

"You have to know what's coming, and it's so easy," Wigand told the audience at a community leaders' dinner presented by Auburn Regional Medical Center and the Auburn Valley Y last Thursday. "You won't be able to tell if Junior, coming home, has smoked a cigarette. Kids are able to hide it."

The tobacco industry paid a massive $368 billion settlement to states – Wigand gave crucial testimony in the deal – but RJR and others are back in business, targeting groups with new products and strategies, Wigand said.

"You worry about cigarettes, pipes and cigars?" he said. "Now worry about these."

Among the new products are: Camel Orbs, which resemble breath mints; Camel Sticks, which are about the size of a toothpick and dissolve in the mouth; and Camel Strips, similar to breath-freshening strips.

R.J. Reynolds says that Camel Orbs' packaging is child-resistant. Wigand shakes his head in disgust. Youth are targeted by the tobacco industry as their next lifetime consumers, he said.

"Tobacco is the only product sold legally in the U.S. that when used as intended, kills," the doctor said.

As Wigand emphasized, one out of three children who try tobacco today will die from it. Tobacco use shortens lifespans, reduces quality of life and causes poverty of money, self-esteem, confidence and achievement.

According to researchers, smokeless tobacco products are the second most common cause of nicotine poisoning in children.

The new products are intended for adults, but like cigarettes and even alcohol, too often wind up in the wrong hands, Wigand said.

Such a reality alarmed students who were captivated at a Rainier Middle School assembly last week. On center stage was Wigand, who fielded thought-provoking, penetrating questions from students.

His discussion focused on prevention, scientific evidence, how the tobacco industry works, moral reasoning and personal responsibility.

The talk hit home.

"What really got them was the fact that something so dangerous, so harmful and addictive ... was legal," said Principal Ben Talbert. "What they were saying was, 'How could this be possible? How could you allow something so harmful to be done this way?'

"Then what really got their attention was the fact that they are in the crosshairs," Talbert said. "Once they realized they are the target market, and the industry is going after them in order to maintain their sustainability ... that drew them even more. It was, "How could this be?'"

Wigand says the community, parents and leaders need to do more to confront the problem.

"The best cessation treatment is preventing the use of the first tobacco product. This is 100-percent effective and comes from educating our children on how the industry targets them," Wigand said. "Enabling knowledge will afford them the rational approach to critical healthy choices."

Wigand says states, including Washington, need to do more on the war against tobacco. He said that Florida did it right, spending $71 million of its tobacco settlement money to create an effective ad campaign. According to Florida's Department of Health, it cut student smoking by 30-50 percent.

"(Gov.) Gregoire used to be a champion," Wigand said, "but I don't hear one now."

There needs to be bold leadership to tackle tobacco.

"I listened to the TV this morning, where they were talking about having AIDS wiped out in this world in three years," Wigand said. "We have 6.2 million people die each year in the world from tobacco-related illness. ... Why can't we get the same champion for this issue?

"I don't seem to find the right way to do it, and I have tried and I will continue to try. But I think we need a champion, somebody in Congress to champion it or somebody in the Senate to champion it.

"I don't have the silver bullet," he went on, "but something needs to be done."

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