NPR logo Kennedy: Are We Ready For Big Tobacco-Style Marketing For Marijuana?

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Kennedy: Are We Ready For Big Tobacco-Style Marketing For Marijuana?

Low-dose pot-infused cookies, called the Rookie Cookie, sit on the packaging table Sept. 26 at The Growing Kitchen in Boulder, Colo. The state legalized recreational pot use last year. Brennan Linsley/AP hide caption

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Brennan Linsley/AP

Low-dose pot-infused cookies, called the Rookie Cookie, sit on the packaging table Sept. 26 at The Growing Kitchen in Boulder, Colo. The state legalized recreational pot use last year.

Brennan Linsley/AP

There has been a lot of talk recently about marijuana legalization — increasing tax revenue for states, getting nonviolent offenders out of the prison system, protecting personal liberty, possible health benefits for those with severe illnesses. These are good and important conversations to have, and smart people from across the ideological spectrum are sharing their perspectives.

But one key dimension of the issue has been left out of the discussion until now: the marketing machine that will spring up to support these now-legal businesses, and the detrimental effect this will have on our kids.

Curious how this might work? Look no further than Big Tobacco. In 1999, the year after a massive legal settlement that restricted certain forms of advertising, the major cigarette companies spent a record $8.4 billion on marketing. In 2011, that number reached $8.8 billion, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. To put it into context, the auto industry spent less than half of that on advertising in 2011, and car ads are everywhere.

At the same time, despite advertising bans, these notoriously sneaky tobacco companies continue to find creative ways to target kids. Data from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that the most heavily marketed brands of cigarettes were also the most popular among people under 18.

This is not a coincidence, and gets to the very core of Big Tobacco's approach: Hook them young, and they have a customer for life. Why do we think the legal marijuana industry will behave differently from Big Tobacco? When the goal is addiction, all bets are off.

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In Colorado, where there are new rules governing how legal marijuana is advertised in traditional media, there are still many opportunities to market online and at concerts, festivals and other venues where kids will be present. Joe Camel might be retired, but he's been replaced by other gimmicks to get kids hooked — like snus and flavored cigarettes. The marijuana industry is following suit by manufacturing THC candies, cookies, lollipops and other edibles that look harmless but aren't. Making marijuana mainstream will also make it more available, more acceptable and more dangerous to our kids.

Addiction is big business, and with legal marijuana it's only getting bigger.

Not surprisingly, Big Tobacco is also getting on the marijuana bandwagon. Manufacturers Altria and Brown & Williamson have registered domain names that include the words "marijuana" and "cannabis." Imagine how much they will spend peddling their new brand of addiction to our kids. We cannot sit by while these companies open a new front in their battle against our children's health.

Why is this an issue? There is a mistaken assumption that marijuana is harmless. It is not. Marijuana use is linked with mental illness, depression, anxiety and psychosis. It affects parts of the brain responsible for memory, learning, attention and reaction time. Developing brains are especially susceptible to all of the negative effects of marijuana and other drug use. In fact, poison control centers in Colorado and Washington state have seen an increase in the number of calls regarding marijuana poisoning. This isn't a surprise — with legal marijuana comes a host of unintended consequences.

I've spent the past several years after leaving Congress advocating for a health care system that treats the brain like it does any other organ in the body. Effective mental health care, especially when it comes to children, is critically important.

Knowing what we now know about the effects of marijuana on the brain, can we really afford to ignore its consequences in the name of legalization? Our No. 1 priority needs to be protecting our kids from this emerging public health crisis. The rights of pot smokers and the marijuana industry end where our children's health begins.

I'm not alone in my concerns about this trend toward legalization. Even Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has said that marijuana legalization in his state was "reckless" and reaffirmed his opposition to it during his campaign for re-election. He also said he will "regulate the heck" out of it. For that, I applaud his leadership and courage.

Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia have legalization ballot measures up for a vote this fall. I hope common sense will prevail, and they choose a better path than making addiction the law of the land.

At the end of the day, legalizing and marketing marijuana is making drug use acceptable and mainstream. Just as Big Tobacco lied to Americans for decades about the deadly consequences of smoking, we can't let "big marijuana" follow in its footsteps, target our kids and profit from addiction.

Patrick J. Kennedy is a former United States representative from the state of Rhode Island.