Opinion: Lessons about marijuana edibles from youth vaping

When it comes to children’s health, parents — and public activism — can make a difference.

The declining valuation of Juul, maker of vaping equipment, and the surge in regulations restricting the nicotine vaping market can be attributed in no small part to the actions of parents who were shocked and dismayed by the toll that vaping was taking on their kids and their kids’ friends.

Their efforts were needed because the federal government abdicated its responsibility to protect youths from an addictive substance being recklessly marketed to them despite years of calls from researchers and health professionals to rein in the large vaping companies that were putting the health of young people at risk.

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Yet here we are again. Alarm bells are already sounding for the next threat to the health and safety of youth: marijuana edibles. And once again, government not only seems oblivious to it but is doing more to help the marijuana industry than to protect families from being blindsided yet again by a harmful product that’s infiltrating children’s lives.

Following a decadeslong decline in the use of tobacco products among young people, the use of nicotine vaping rose precipitously over the course of just a few years. Unlike cigarettes, which have an unmistakable smell when smoked, vaping devices produce a faint, sweet smell that dissipates quickly. They are small and discreet and resemble other commonly used products like flash drives or pens. These features have allowed young people to vape nicotine — or marijuana — in classrooms, bathrooms, at home, or in public, easily hidden from view, making detection by adults difficult. Many parents were taken by surprise and shocked to see their kids struggling with addiction to a substance that many didn’t even realize they were using.

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Once it hit home, though, they leveraged their influence and took on a multibillion-dollar industry — and the federal government — to bring about much-needed restrictions on an out-of-control market.

The federal minimum legal sale age for all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, was raised. Flavored vaping products were banned and restrictions placed on where and how they could be sold. Ads were stripped from social media outlets. The media reported on the nefarious practices of vaping companies, refuting years of industry proclamations about the benefits of vaping for cigarette smokers that went far beyond available evidence.

This sea change in the nation’s response to vaping resulted in the first significant decline in youth e-cigarette use in years, along with a rise in the perceived risk of harm from using these products, and a significant number of youths wanting to quit.

Early warning signs

It shouldn’t have taken years to put this issue on the national agenda. Signs of the dangers to kids of nicotine vaping were there from the start, for those willing to see them. These included alarming increases in calls to poison control centers for young children unintentionally exposed to toxic e-liquids; cases of exploding vaping devices; preteens and teens extolling vaping products’ delicious flavors and sharing vaping photos and videos on social media; and schools, parents, and doctors noticing that children could not sit still, were having wild mood swings, and were evincing actual symptoms of addiction.

Similar warning signs are emerging for marijuana edibles. There have been spikes in the number of calls to poison control centers across the country for unintentional exposures to edibles in children under age 10. Teenagers looking for what they believe is a safe way to get high have little problem accessing and using marijuana in edible forms that escape the notice of adults around them. And national data show that teens are increasingly turning to these discreet and tasty modes of marijuana consumption and that those who use edibles — or vape marijuana — are more likely to use the drug on a daily basis than teens who smoke it.

The risk to teens of edible marijuana, and vaping it, should not be dismissed. Teens who use marijuana frequently are significantly more likely than adults to become addicted to the drug and to have an increased risk of other substance use, and are also more likely to display a range of cognitive and mental health problems. We and our colleagues at Partnership to End Addiction see these statistics play out in calls to our helpline, where concern about a child’s marijuana use is the main reason families reach out to us for help. Marijuana is far and away the most common substance for which adolescents are admitted for substance use disorder treatment.

Marketing tactics

The marketing tactics for edible marijuana products are following a similar playbook as the ones used for promoting vaping. That should come as no surprise, since the major companies taking over the marijuana industry are the same tobacco and alcohol companies with decades of experience making addictive products appeal to youths. The goal? Gaining a loyal customer base for their addictive products, even at the expense of kids’ health.

This well-trodden pattern of marketing practices includes the use of cartoon characters to sell cigarettes; alcohol sold as fruity alcopops, wine coolers, and sweet-flavored seltzers; e-cigarettes sold in an astonishing array of flavors; and now marijuana edibles that are indistinguishable from products typically coveted by children. These include gummy bears, sour candy, lollipops, sodas, and other sweet marijuana edibles with names like Stoney Patch Kids, Frooty Loopys, and Buddahfinger. While an adult looking to get high might find these names amusing, edibles don’t need to mirror childhood candy to appeal to adults.

Similar government inaction

State and federal governments were virtually asleep at the wheel when nicotine vaping began saturating every middle and high school in the country. In contrast, most states have provisions in their marijuana laws to protect kids from accessing and ingesting products loaded with THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. But these protections are clearly inadequate.

Canada does not allow edibles to be packaged in colorful or child-friendly ways. Regulations in the U.S., however, are lax or nonexistent. A well-financed lobbying effort by the marijuana industry and a public desperate for unbridled access to the drug in all its possible forms have successfully influenced lawmakers to go easy on marijuana regulations and restrictions. The result is an increase in the number of kids in states where recreational marijuana use is legal who say it’s easy for them to access marijuana.

To those who care about public health, it is clear that the march toward marijuana legalization should not proceed without ensuring adequate protection for children of all ages, from babies who can experience serious health effects from ingesting edibles to teenagers who can access marijuana with relative ease. We shouldn’t have to wait for more kids to get hurt to trigger enough parental outrage to act.

The vaping crisis should make it easy to see what’s coming with regard to edible marijuana. Those in the best position to act are in state governments, whose job it is to protect kids and the public health from an industry driven purely by a profit motive. Unfortunately, most state governments are blinded by the overestimated potential for tax revenue and the fear of public disapproval over any attempt to control access to marijuana.

It seems like the only group angry enough to take on the burgeoning marijuana industry’s use of child-oriented packaging, designs, names, and flavorings for products loaded with THC so far is the traditional candy industry. Companies like Wrigley and Hershey, seeing their intellectual property rights and brand images undermined by some edible companies that mimic the packaging and labeling of their famous candy brands, have filed lawsuits against the companies that irresponsibly hawk these addictive THC-infused products.

One lesson from the vaping epidemic worth repeating is that parents can be a catalyst for change. But it shouldn’t really be up to them to protect kids from edible marijuana products. Policymakers and lawmakers need to act to keep these products out of the hands of young people before more kids get hurt.

Linda Richter is vice president of prevention, research, and analysis at Partnership to End Addiction, where Lindsey Vuolo is vice president of health law and policy.

Source: STAT