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California should ban marijuana advertising to protect children and teens

It’s one thing to decriminalize cannabis, but it’s another to encourage use with marketing and advertising that reaches kids.

And that’s the problem: Almost all commercial advertising makes its way to the eyes and ears of children. If we care about public health, we should ban all cannabis ads.

San Diego banned cannabis billboards within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks, playgrounds and daycare centers. But kids in cars go everywhere, especially teenagers, which means marijuana messaging is still seeping into young minds, associating pot smoking with fun activities like rollerblading.

When I would fly to Palm Springs for work — as I did routinely before the pandemic — the first thing I saw when I get off the plane was a large, shiny, well-lit picture of cannabis buds advertising the name, address and phone number of a nearby dispensary. Only a few feet later, I saw a similar sign advertising cannabis tours.

At the baggage claim, all eyes were on a large sign for the Cannabis Consumption Lounge: “Smoke It. Eat It. Drink It. Enjoy It.” Cannabis advertising is everywhere these days, just like the pot shops themselves, including the rather baffling drive-through dispensary I saw on my last trip to the Golden State, and the cannabis delivery services that have surged in popularity amid the pandemic.

In Colorado, cannabis companies are forbidden to buy billboards. So, instead, they are “adopting highways” to get their brands on roadway signs throughout the state. This is to be expected with commercialized cannabis. Companies are driven by profit, and profits require more people to use, and existing users to use more. Cannabis companies are incentivized to market in every way possible, which inevitably affects public health.

We don’t need to see cannabis ads on TV, in newspapers or magazines or online. We don’t need to hear ads on the radio or drive by cannabis signs and billboards. If people want to find cannabis, they can look it up easily enough. Let’s not allow corporations to target people and drive even more use.

We already know from many studies that advertising is a risk factor for substance use, with several also showing that more exposure to advertising increases consumption. One recent study found that one in three youth engaged with cannabis promotions on social media and that adolescents who engaged with such promotions had five times higher odds of cannabis use.

Another new study found that exposure to alcohol advertising changes teens’ attitudes about alcohol and can cause them to start drinking. A 2012 Surgeon General’s Report reached a similar conclusion regarding tobacco ads. Indeed, significant restrictions on tobacco marketing — starting with the 1971 ban on TV and radio ads — have helped improve public health. Yet a new study of all 539 California cities and counties found that few have adopted lessons from tobacco control in devising their cannabis regulations.

The entire point of advertising is to motivate people to want, and then purchase, a product, and to shape public perceptions about the product. We also know companies that market addictive substances benefit from reaching young people. The younger that people begin using, the more they purchase over a lifetime, the more profits they generate, and — unfortunately — the greater their risk for developing addiction.

In the end, people with substance use disorders buy the most. For example, a small minority of the population —people who consume 10 or more drinks a day on average — buy the lion’s share of alcohol in the United States.

We don’t need cannabis ads on our billboards. If anything, we need cannabis warnings.

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