How One Group of California Teens Took a Stand Against Tobacco

Union City, California

In Union City, California, members of the city’s Youth Commission were concerned over the easy access their peers had to flavored cigars, cigarillos, and electronic smoking devices, such as e-cigarettes. These gateway tobacco products are often packaged in exciting ways, have kid-friendly flavors, can cost less than cigarettes, and can lead to a lifetime of nicotine addiction.
 
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2012, 6.7% of middle school students and 23.3% of high school students surveyed said they currently used tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, hookahs, and electronic cigarettes. Smoking cigars is the second most common form of tobacco use among youth, and much of the growing popularity of cigars appears to be linked to flavored products. Between 2011 and 2012, the use of electronic cigarettes doubled among middle and high school students in the United States.
 
Identifying a problem
 
Members of the Union City Youth Commission, made up of students from local schools who want to play an active role in their community, found the behavior of their peers was consistent with these national trends.
 
“I’ve seen people using [e-hookahs] in class,” said Mark Gruzman, who serves as a tobacco decoy. Under the supervision of law enforcement, Gruzman checks whether retailers are selling tobacco to minors. “They’re so easy to get away with while the teacher is not looking.”
 
Noting the widespread availability of inexpensive cigars and the growing use of e-cigarettes, the Union City Youth Commission decided to take action against these teen-targeted tobacco products.
 
First, the Commission conducted a survey of Union City’s tobacco retailers, often using tobacco decoys to gain access to any products sold from behind the counter. In one case, a merchant said that “[kids] buy cheap cigarillos, clean the wrappers out, and fill them with other drugs.” 
 
After visiting 47 of the 49 retailers within city limits, the Youth Commission discovered 70 percent of these retailers sold flavored cigars for less than $2, while 43 percent sold flavored smokeless tobacco products, and 21 percent carried e-cigarettes. In one case, they found a local store selling a 20-pack of flavored cigars for only $1.99—less than a candy bar.  
 
Developing a solution
 
Knowing the tobacco industry targets young people through advertisements and price promotions, the Youth Commission prepared to approach the City Council to advocate for change.
 
Members of the Youth Commission needed more information about what other communities have done to address teen-friendly tobacco products. ChangeLab Solutions helped the Youth Commission and the county tobacco control program identify several policy options. For example, we noted several cities have prohibited sales of cheap single cigars, and we shared model policy language based in part on successful ordinances from other communities.
 
Armed with information from ChangeLab Solutions about the sale and use of e-cigarettes and a model Tobacco Retailer Licensing ordinance, the Youth Commission recommended the City Council consider restricting tobacco products that appeal to kids. Several Youth Commission members and their adult advocates spoke in support of the Commission’s recommendations to regulate the sale of these products within city limits.
 
In response, Union City’s City Council members voted unanimously to prohibit the sale of cheap individual cigars and regulate the sale of electronic smoking devices in the same manner as traditional tobacco products. This means that in Union City, retailers selling e-cigarettes must have a local tobacco retailer’s license and keep these products behind the counter. In addition, new e-cigarette lounges and hookah bars are banned within city limits.
 
Many other cities in California are following Union City’s lead, and the Youth Commission provides a solid example of the vital role teens can play in mobilizing communities. Learn more about how the Youth Commission drove change in our video: