Fighting tobacco use among Caribbean youths

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Varieties of disposable flavoured electronic cigarette devices on display at a store in Pinecrest, Florida, USA. – AP PHOTO

PROTECTING children from tobacco industry tactics, to promote their products, was high on the agenda at World No Tobacco Day webinar hosted by the Caricom Secretariat on May 31.

World No Tobacco Day is observed annually on May 31.

The webinar was attended by Dr Heather Armstrong, head of chronic diseases and injury at the Caribbean Public Health Agency (Carpha), Dr Joy St John, Carpha’s executive director, Caricom Youth Ambassadors (CYAs) and regional youth leaders.

The theme of the webinar was “Dangers and Current Trends in the Use of Tobacco Products and E-cigarettes Among Youths.”

A news release from Carpha on June 1 stated, “Tobacco continues to pose a significant global health challenge, contributing to millions of deaths annually despite widespread efforts to curb its usage.”

It added, “In the Caribbean region, tobacco use remains a major public health concern.”

“The use of tobacco products in any form – whether it is smoked, smokeless, or electronic – harms nearly every organ of the body. Tobacco use is one of the main risk factors for noncommunicable diseases, associated with lung cancer, and coronary heart disease in adults; and acute respiratory conditions and severe asthma in children,” stated St John.

Currently, 11.3 per cent of adolescents between 13 and 15 years of age in the region use tobacco, compared to the world average of 10.3 per cent.

Carpha said, The tobacco industry has a long-standing history of targeting young demographics through aggressive marketing strategies, including advertising, promotions, and sponsorships. These tactics, designed to glamourise tobacco products and downplay associated health risks, contribute to increased youth tobacco use. E-cigarettes are often promoted as “reduced risk”, “smoke-free”, “socially acceptable” consumer products.

However, there have been increasing reports of harmful effects of e-cigarettes.

The release boasted that there has been progress in reducing the use of tobacco, including among adolescents and youth in the region and globally.

However, it said, this progress is being put at risk by an increase in the use of electronic nicotine and non-nicotine delivery systems, also called electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) or vapes, particularly among young people.

Nicotine in e-cigarettes is a highly addictive drug and can damage children’s developing brains. Young persons who use e-cigarettes likely double their chance of smoking cigarettes later in life.

The agency lamented that Tobacco use among Caribbean youths persists due to entrenched cultural norms.

Celebrations and rituals often revolve around smoking, complicating prevention efforts, while accessibility remains high despite regulatory measures, it said.

Armstrong said Carpha plays a vital role in combating tobacco use in the Caribbean.

“At Carpha, our approach involves thorough research and surveillance to understand youth tobacco trends and develop targeted interventions. This includes advocating for strong tobacco control policies and implementing public awareness campaigns through various media channels. Member States are encouraged to work together to prevent and reduce the use of all forms of tobacco products, and scale-up efforts to implement their commitments under the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. By doing so, the negative impact of smoking and its consequences on the health of our people, especially the younger generation, and the tremendous burden on the economies of the countries in our region, will greatly be reduced.”

Actions to be taken

Preventing tobacco product use among youth is critical, and involves:

Protecting children from tobacco industry interference. This requires a multifaceted approach involving regulations, educational initiatives, and collaborative efforts across various sectors.

Enforcing age restrictions and implementing effective age verification measures to prevent minors’ access to tobacco products.

Strengthening tobacco packaging and labelling regulations by enforcing plain packaging laws and incorporating graphic health warnings can mitigate the appeal of tobacco products to youth.

Promoting tobacco-free environments in places frequented by children and integrating tobacco prevention education into school curricula is vital for raising awareness about the health risks associated with tobacco use.

Empowering youth to advocate against tobacco industry interference and engaging parents and caregivers in efforts to protect children from tobacco marketing tactics further fortify these initiatives.