NEW YORK (AP) — When New York’s first recreational marijuana outlet opened last month, the head of the state’s office of cannabis management, Chris Alexander, proudly hoisted a box of watermelon-flavored marijuana candy above the crowd.
Outside a Manhattan store, he offered another purchase—a jar containing dried flowers from a cannabis strain called Banana Runtz, which some aficionados say has overtones of “fresh bananas, fruit, and sour candy.”
Inside the store run by the non-profit Housing Works, shelves are filled with vape cartridges that refer to the flavors of pineapple, grapefruit and “cereal milk,” spelled out in rainbow letters.
For decades, health advocates have criticized the tobacco industry for marketing harmful nicotine products to children, leading more cities and states, such as New York, to ban flavored tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.
Now, as cannabis stores pop up across the country, the same concerns are growing about the packaging and marketing of flavored cannabis that critics say could tempt kids to partake in products labeled “Mango Crazy,” “Screaming Lemon,” and “Peach Dream.”
said Catherine Keys, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University who has written extensively about the rise in marijuana use among young adults.
“If you go to a cannabis dispensary now, it’s almost ridiculous how young people direct so much packaging and products,” she said.
Keyes added that public health policymakers — and researchers like her — are trying to catch up with a rapidly expanding industry and market.
New York, which legalized recreational marijuana in March 2021, bans marketing and advertising “designed in any way to attract children or other minors.”
But the New York State Office of Cannabis Management has yet to formally adopt rules on labeling, packaging, and advertising that could ban cartoons and neon colors, as well as ban depictions of food, candy, soda, drinks, cookies, or cereal on packages — all of which, as The agency suggests, it can attract people under the age of 21.
“Consumers should be aware — parents should be aware — if they see products that look similar to other products commonly marketed to children, this is a bootleg market product,” said Leila Hunt, deputy director of public health and campaigns at OCM.
Hunt recently saw a cannabis producer calling itself “Stony Patch Kids” which she said was similar to the popular “Sour Patch Kids” candy.
Similar products are sold by dozens of Illegal dispensaries operating in the open air and that officials are concerned about unsafe products being sold. Once packaging and marketing standards are in place, experts say, the illicit market will likely not comply.
“We can regulate until we’re blue in the face. But the truth is it’s a partnership between a compliant industry, strong regulations that are strong in their protection for young people and then with parents as well,” Hunt said.
Under state law, a minor in possession of marijuana will face a civil penalty of no more than $50. Licensed cannabis retailers who sell to minors face fines and loss of their licenses, but no jail time.
Science has long established the addictive nature of nicotine and the health diseases associated with tobacco smoking, including cancer and emphysema.
The health effects of vaping are less stable, especially among children whose bodies and internal organs are not yet fully developed.
While tobacco cigarette smoking has decreased among adolescents and young adults, e-cigarette and vaping use has risen.
A handful of states—California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island—have banned most flavored tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and vapers. An increasing number of cities, including New York City, also have similar bans.
But Linda Richter of the Partnership to End Addiction said those rules need to be expanded to include marijuana, which she says the problem is not yet widely addressed.
“There is more scrutiny in the tobacco industry, and very, very little in terms of rules, regulations, scrutiny and restrictions when it comes to the cannabis industry,” she said.
She added that due to the relative infancy of the codified industry, countries have not yet standardized the rules on a single national standard. States often look to the federal government to set those standards, but marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.
“This is a real problem where you don’t have the weight of the federal government in terms of packaging and marketing standards,” Richter said, setting standards to avoid marketing appeals to young people.
Anti-smoking groups, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, have long criticized the tobacco industry for its marketing, such as using cartoon characters to help market their products. In recent years, they have been campaigning against flavored nicotine products, including those in vaping form.
But so far, no such groups have put the marijuana industry in the crosshairs.
A study published earlier this month It documented the sharp rise in poisonings among young children, especially young children, who have accidentally ingested marijuana-containing treatments.
The rise in cases coincides with a rise in the number of states allowing medical or recreational marijuana use. Medical use of cannabis is currently permitted in 37 US states, while 21 states allow recreational use.
“When you’re talking about strawberry cheesecake or mango or cookie and cream flavours, it’s very hard to argue that they are for senior citizens,” said Dr. Pamela Laing, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research. and education at the University of California, San Francisco.
“People who consider themselves more like cannabis aficionados,” she said, “will say that smoking a flavored cannabis product is like putting ketchup on your steak.”