The sentiments of drug dealers worldwide were summarized in the 1973 R.J. Reynolds tobacco company document entitled “Some Thoughts About New Brands of Cigarettes for the Youth Market,” which states: “Realistically, if our Company is to survive and prosper, over the long term, we must get our share of the youth market.” The goal of those who sell dangerous drugs to children is to get them young and get them hooked, because most of their profits come from addicted users.
A deadly problem
Substance use disorders in adolescents and young adults are a major epidemic in the United States today, and drug overdose is now a leading cause of death in young people. These findings from “The Facts Hurt: A State-By-State Injury Prevention Policy Report” by the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation were released in July 2015. Many overdoses are caused by combining drugs or by dangerous street drugs marketed to teens.
A new dangerous trend in the street drug scene is selling methamphetamine in colorful, sugary candies. Edible marijuana preparations are also sold in sweet treats. Other drugs, such as LSD, are sold in dissolvable strips or lickable stickers with images that appeal to teenagers.
Getting adolescents to use needles is difficult until they become addicted, so drug dealers have become quite creative. A powdered form of heroin mixed with Tylenol PM (called “cheese”) made for snorting emerged about 10 years ago in North Texas and resulted in over 40 deaths.
Evidence shows that alcohol advertising causes youth to start drinking at an earlier age and to consume more than they would otherwise if they already started drinking. Wine coolers, hard lemonade and colas, chocolatey drinks and sugary sodas that contain alcohol are all meant to target young, inexperienced drinkers and work very well in doing so.
The infamous “Joe Camel” was used very effectively by the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company to market cigarettes to youth. Despite numerous lawsuits, the company continues to market cigarettes to children today by simply changing tactics.
E-cigarettes have gained popularity in recent years and the 2015 Monitoring the Future Survey showed that their popularity among teens is increasing. E-cigarettes consist of a smokeless nicotine delivery system that uses a battery to heat liquid in a cartridge which produces a chemical vapor. Flavoring chemicals that appeal to children are added, along with whatever else. (Currently, there is no government regulation of e-cigarettes whatsoever.)
Prescription opioid use can be a fast track for anyone to heroin addiction, especially teens. But even dangerous drugs that are legal are being indirectly marketed for children’s use. Big pharmaceutical corporations target their marketing strategies to pediatricians and institutions that care for vulnerable young people. For example, Johnson and Johnson was ordered to pay $2.2 billion to the government for marketing off-label uses for antipsychotics in children, such as Risperdal. Off-label uses refer to incidents when drugs are prescribed to patients, such as children, in which no clinical trials have been conducted demonstrating that the drugs are safe or effective for that use. Risperdal caused adverse effects in some children, such as the development of breast tissue in boys.
Million- or billion-dollar lawsuits do not hinder the marketing of dangerous drugs to children. First of all, a few billion dollars is not very much money compared to the overall profits drug dealers enjoy. As with the R. J. Reynolds company, most just pay who they need to pay and change their tactics. How much actually gets paid and to whom is another issue. There is not much money going toward anti-drug education programs, as most, such as the D.A.R.E. program, have lost their funding in recent years.
Current legislation preventing marketing drugs to children does not seem to be a priority, either. A bill that was introduced in 2013 (S.1686, now S.724), which would “amend the Controlled Substances Act to provide enhanced penalties for marketing candy-flavored controlled substances to minors,” still has yet to pass the Senate in any form.
How parents can protect their children
It seems parents are on their own in protecting their children from drug use and overdose. Here are some ways parents can counter drug marketing strategies:
- Explain to your children what drugs do and why you don’t want your kids to try them.
- Explain how trying drugs once can lead to addiction and how experimenting with drugs is not a normal part of growing up.
- Explain who does want children to take drugs and why.
- Supervise your children’s activities.
- Be vigilant in monitoring your child’s or teen’s music, movies, reading materials, Internet use and social groups.
- Stay attuned to your child’s stressors, feelings, moods, academic performance and social relationships.
- Maintain family mealtimes and bedtimes.
- Nurture healthy parent-child relationships and communication.
- Engage in healthy sports and activities, including regular family activities.
- Talk to other parents and anti-drug groups about strategies and tactics to protect children.
- Thoroughly research any suggested prescription medication your child is given prior to administration.
Combating aggressive marketing of dangerous drugs to children is not easy. Drug dealers fully understand the death and destruction their products cause and they simply do not care. It is up to parents, families and communities to be more vigilant than ever before, and to unite in protecting the future of children and the future of this country.
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About the author
Dana Connolly, Ph.D., translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education.