Local high school activists implored Richmond's city council members to restrict the sale of flavored tobacco and alcohol throughout the city. The students argued that the concentration of cheap tobacco and alcohol is a threat to the health of the community.
Photo by Abené Clayton
When a young kid walks into a corner store, this usually means re-upping on snacks like Hot Cheetos and Skittles. But when the kid walks past the beverage section, they’ll see their favorite drinks and brightly colored alcoholic beverages like Four Lokos.
Behind the cashier are shiny, colorful packs of tropical-flavored tobacco products like ZigZags and Swishers.
And “what kids see has an impact,” says Ali Wohlgemuth with Bay Area Community Resources (BACR).
That’s why BACR, which organizes after-school programs focused on tobacco and alcohol prevention, held a community forum in late September. The goal? To come up with strategies to ban single-sale alcohol in Richmond.
A BACR student group also spoke in front of city council last week to announce a similar mission: to stop the sale of flavored tobacco in the city, as well.
Young people in lower-income neighborhoods are disproportionately exposed to flavored tobacco products and “single sales of individual beers, individual cans of ‘alco-pops,’” according to Wohlgemuth.
“Areas with the least amount of income have the highest levels of alcohol sales,” she said during the community forum at the Civic Center on September 20.
“If you go over the hill to Orinda [or] Moraga, you see almost none of that,” she added.
At the forum, BACR staff and nonprofits such as Project Success and Friday Night Live spoke about the services that help deter young people from alcohol and tobacco. They also helped strategize ways to restrict the sale of flavored tobacco and ban single sales in Richmond, according to county policy coordinator Nabila Sher.
A week after the forum, four De Anza High School students spoke at Richmond’s City Council meeting. Each young speaker, clad in all black, had packs of ZigZags and Swisher Sweets laid on a table, and the products were the focal point of their presentation.
Karina Guadalupe of Youth Tobacco Advocacy and Policy (YTAP), a student group affiliated with BACR, said protecting “youth in Richmond from tobacco influences” should be a priority for the city council.
She described how her group performed a “walking survey” of the city, during which they found that “59 percent [of schools] have a tobacco retailer within a thousand feet,” Guadalupe said.
“That means that we have more tobacco retailers than we have schools,” she added.
The students called on city officials to follow Berkeley and Oakland’s lead by passing ordinances that will limit where tobacco retailers can do business. Both of those cities have laws that disallow stores to sell tobacco products within 1,000 feet of a school or park.
The Contra Costa County board of supervisors also approved similar legislation earlier this year, which included a provision that prohibits pharmacies from selling tobacco products in the unincorporated county.
The lawmakers agreed that adding fruity aromas to tobacco products is another way to turn young folks into regular smokers before the age of 18.
Public health activist Dr. Phillip Gardiner echoed the students’ concerns. “Most kids start with flavors,” he said. “We know that these product are predatorily marketed to the African-American community.”
While city council presentation focused on banning flavored tobacco, the group also wants restrictions on single-serve alcohol. BACR organizers feel that these products are too easy for young people to get their hands on, and that local politicians must do their part to, as Gardiner said, “put children’s lives over the interests of the tobacco industry.”
City officials did not speak to any specific policies they would implement, but Mayor Tom Butt seemed receptive to policies aimed at restricting adult products that are attractive and easily accessible to youth.
“Frankly, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t move on this,” Butt said.