NY – As New York’s first licensed recreational marijuana store opened last month, the head of the state’s Office of Cannabis Management, Chris Alexander, proudly raised a can of watermelon-flavored gummies high above the crowd .
Outside the Manhattan store, he showed off another purchase: a jar containing dried flowers of a cannabis strain called Banana Runtz, which some aficionados say has undertones of “fresh, fruity banana and sour caramel.”
Inside the store run by the nonprofit Housing Works, shelves were brimming with vape cartridges suggesting flavors of pineapple, grapefruit and “cereal milk,” spelled out in rainbow bubble letters.
For decades, health advocates have chided the tobacco industry for marketing harmful nicotine products to children, resulting in more cities and states, like New York, banning flavored tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes.
As cannabis shops proliferate across the country, the same concerns are growing about the packaging and marketing of flavored cannabis that critics say could entice children to partake of products labeled “crazy mango,” “lemon noisy” and “peach dream”.
“We should learn from the nicotine space, and I would certainly argue that we should have a similar concern for cannabis products in terms of their appeal to young people,” said Katherine Keyes, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University who has written extensively about the rise in marijuana use among youth.
“If you walk by a cannabis dispensary right now,” he said, “it’s almost absurd how the packaging and the products are geared towards young people.”
Keyes added that public health policymakers, and researchers like her, are trying to catch up with a rapidly expanding and evolving industry and market.
New York, which legalized recreational marijuana in March 2021, prohibits marketing and advertising that “is designed in any way to attract children or other minors.”
But the New York State Office of Cannabis Administration has yet to officially adopt rules on labeling, packaging and advertising that could ban cartoons and neon colors, as well as ban depictions of food, candy, soft drinks, drinks, cookies or cereal. on packages, all of which the agency suggests might appeal to people under 21.
“Consumers need to be aware, parents need to be aware, if you see products that look like other products that are commonly marketed to children, that’s an illicit market product,” said Lyla Hunt, OCM’s deputy director of public health and campaigns. .
Hunt recently saw a cannabis product calling itself “Stony Patch Kids” which he said resembled the popular “Sour Patch Kids” candy.
The dozens of illegal outdoor marijuana dispensaries sell similar products, and officials fear they sell unsafe products. Once packaging and marketing standards are established, the illicit market likely won’t comply, experts say.
“We can regulate until we are blue in the face. But the truth is that it is a partnership between an industry that is compliant, strong regulations that are strong in their protection for young people and also for parents,” Hunt said.
Under state law, a minor in possession of marijuana would face a civil penalty of no more than $50. Licensed cannabis retailers who sell to minors face fines and the loss of their licenses, but not jail time.
Science has long established the addictive nature of nicotine and the health problems associated with smoking tobacco, including cancer and emphysema.
Less settled are the health repercussions of vaping, particularly among children whose bodies and internal organs have not yet fully developed.
While tobacco cigarette smoking has decreased among teens and young adults, the use of e-cigarettes and vaping has increased.
A handful of states—California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island—ban most flavored tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and vapes. A growing number of cities, including New York City, also have similar bans.
But those rules need to be expanded to include marijuana, said Linda Richter of the Partnership to End Addiction, who says the issue has yet to be broadly addressed.
“There is more scrutiny in the tobacco industry and very, very little in terms of rules, regulations, scrutiny, limitations when it comes to the cannabis industry,” he said.
Due to the relative infancy of the legalized industry, he added, states have yet to merge the rules into a single national standard. States often turn to the federal government to set those standards, but marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.
“That’s a real problem where you don’t have the weight of the federal government in terms of packaging and marketing standards” to set parameters to avoid youth-appealing marketing, Richter said.
Anti-smoking groups, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, have long criticized the tobacco industry for its marketing, such as its use of cartoon characters to help market its products. In more recent years, they have campaigned against flavored nicotine products, including those used for vaping.
But so far, these groups have not targeted the marijuana industry.
A study published earlier this month documented the sharp rise in poisonings among young children, especially younger ones, who accidentally ate marijuana-laced candy.
The increase in cases coincides with the increase in the number of states that allow the use of marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes. Currently, medical use of cannabis is permitted in 37 US states, while 21 states allow recreational use.
“When you’re talking about strawberry cheesecake, mango or cookies and cream flavors, it’s very hard to argue that they’re for older adults,” said Dr. Pamela Ling, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research. and Education at the University of California, San Francisco.
“People who see themselves more as cannabis aficionados,” he said, “would say that smoking a flavored cannabis product is like putting ketchup on steak.”
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