A no-smoking sign indicates that tobacco products are not permitted in Travis Park. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Big Tobacco is expanding its market of addicted consumers, and San Antonio must do its part to stop it.

The City of San Antonio already has passed several ordinances dedicated to safeguarding clean, healthy air in our city. San Antonio residents on Thursday will have an opportunity to voice their support for a smoke-free policy proposal for local parks.

Smoking has long been associated with cancer, heart and lung diseases, and strokes. Preventing teenage smoking is important because nearly 90 percent of adult smokers start before they turn 18, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

After peaking in 1997, teenage smoking rates have steadily declined following aggressive congressional action, an enormous class action settlement, and well-funded, creative public education campaigns.

Unfortunately, there has been an uptick in teenage smoking in the past year, as 8.1 percent of youth reported smoking cigarettes in 2018 compared to 7.6 percent in 2017, according to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some attribute that uptick to the exponential increase in e-cigarette use, or vaping, among teenagers. According to a recent Rand Corporation study, teenagers start using e-cigarettes, small devices that deliver vaporized nicotine electronically, and transition to traditional cigarettes.

Juul entered the e-cigarette market in 2015 and quickly became the product of choice for teenagers. With a sleek design resemblant of a flash drive, Juul e-cigarettes contain roughly as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes. Teenagers report using Juul e-cigarettes because of their attractive flavor profiles and trendy marketing campaigns on apps like Instagram, researchers at Stanford University found.

The growth in e-cigarette consumption among teenagers has coincided with the popularity of Juul. While e-cigarettes may be associated with fewer risks than traditional cigarettes, the U.S. Surgeon General warns that nicotine is harmful and addictive to young adults and teenagers.

The Federal Drug Administration is currently investigating Juul’s marketing practices, specifically whether the company developed and implemented a marketing campaign specifically targeting teenagers. Moreover, tobacco giant Altria recently bought a large stake in Juul, hitching its fortunes to an emerging market of users.

These trends have become so alarming that U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams has declared e-cigarette use among youth a national “public health epidemic.”

The City of San Antonio has taken concrete steps to reduce smoking and e-cigarette consumption by teenagers. The so-called Tobacco 21 ordinance, championed by Metro Health Director Colleen Bridger and passed by City Council in January 2018, restricts sales of tobacco products to consumers 21 years and older. Under the new ordinance, high school seniors are no longer permitted to purchase nicotine products that can easily be illicitly distributed to underage classmates. Some public health experts consider Tobacco 21 a best practice for reducing teenage smoking and vaping.

The smoke-free ordinance, adopted by City Council in 2010, prohibits smoking in bars, restaurants, and similar public spaces. The ordinance extends to e-cigarette use, which helps reduce social acceptability of e-cigarettes. Every small step toward removing the “cool” factor from Juul will help reduce teenage e-cigarette use.

To that end, the City of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department has proposed tobacco- and vape-free parks as part of the 2019-2029 Parks System Plan. On Thursday, Jan. 24, the City will host a community input meeting at 5:30 p.m. at the Salvation Army Peacock Center.

A tobacco-free parks policy is a logical next step toward eliminating smoking and e-cigarette use by teenagers and bolstering public health. I encourage all San Antonians to support tobacco-free parks and urge City Council to adopt this plank of the parks plan.

T.J. Mayes is a Junior Partner at Phipps Deacon Purnell, PLLC and serves on the board of directors of the San Antonio Council on Alcohol and Drug Awareness and recently served as vice chair of the North...