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Critics want tobacco samples banned

SALEM — Lawmakers heard testimony this week from a coalition of state health organizations asking the Legislature to ban the distribution of free tobacco samples.

Tobacco companies that are not allowed to give away cigarettes have, instead, taken to handing out samples of chewing tobacco and flavored mini-cigars. The issue is not a widespread problem, but health organizations have asked legislators to address the practice before it becomes one.

Washington already has a ban prohibiting companies from doling out samples.

Rep. Ron Maurer, R-Grants Pass, a member of the Human Services Committee that spent part of the week discussing legislation, said tobacco samples aren't typical freebies.

"I think of something you used to get in the mail, where they send you dryer softener, four or five sheets," Maurer said.

"They're giving you three cans of chewing tobacco. That would be over $15 worth of product. It seems a little more aggressive than a sample." The samples, detractors say, come in kid-friendly packaging and flavors, including chocolate mint and chai tea.

"Clearly, the marketing that they use is targeted at kids and this ban is something I think will easily pass," Maurer said.

In addition, legislators are working on an amendment that would prevent a loophole often used by tobacco companies — gift certificates.

"We're working on language to close that loophole," Maurer said.

Statistics presented by health organizations show that one in every five 11th graders uses smokeless tobacco. That number spikes to three in five in rural areas, where smokeless tobacco is more heavily ingrained in farming culture.

"The reason I support the ban is we really don't want to increase the number of tobacco users — particularly younger people," said Rep. George Gilman, R-Medford.

Gilman also expressed concerns it would be difficult for companies handing out free cans of tobacco to ensure the product is distributed only to legal citizens, who are at least 18.

"When you are giving out free samples it seems like checking for an ID might be problematic," Gilman said.

In some instances tobacco companies are eager to check IDs, requiring product recipients to sign an affidavit and submit a photocopy of their driver's license, said Jane Stevenson, the community health director at the Jackson County Public Health Department.

"They use that as a marketing tool," Stevenson said. "Now they have your name and address." The health department has worked for several years with the Jackson County fairgrounds and other venues that host trade shows to curb the distribution of free tobacco samples. She cited outdoor shows and the Jackson County Fair as events where tobacco has been given away in the past.

Statistics compiled by the health department, she said, show a rise in the use of smokeless tobacco, mostly within the 18- to 25-year-old demographic sought by tobacco companies.

"I think there's a correlation between an increase in smokeless tobacco use and these free samples," Stevenson said.

Stevenson said the Legislature is addressing a legal gap tobacco companies exploit, and will continue to exploit until it is closed.

"The whole concept of the tobacco industry coming into Oregon because we don't have this law in place is unsettling," Stevenson said. "Obviously, this would be a step in the right direction."

Bob Albrecht is a freelance writer living in Eugene.