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  • Melissa Potter

Cortland Teens Expose Big Tobacco

The fight against tobacco is about saving lives. It’s also about exposing the deceptive and manipulative practices of the tobacco industry that they use to target youth, which is the goal of Reality Check, a Tobacco Free Zone program through the Cortland County Health Department.

Reality Check youth leaders from Cortland Junior Senior High School presented to the Cortland Rotary Club Tuesday on the impact of tobacco marketing has on youth, here in the City of Cortland. “The average age for a new smoker is 13 years old,” said Kelsey Gibbons, 17, of Cortland.

Tobacco marketing at the point-of-sale most commonly occurs at gas stations, convenient stores, pharmacies, electronic cigarette retailers, smoke shops and retailers that sell drug paraphernalia. Point-of-sale promotions include exterior and interior tobacco advertisements, price discounts, product placement strategies and power walls. “Tobacco ads begin on the walls and windows of these stores with big, colorful ads that are often at eye level of a young child,” said Katherine Couture, 18, of Cortland. “Attractive images of tobacco products can be found alongside ads for snacks and treats that kids seek to buy, like candy, soda, and ice cream.”

According to the most recent Surgeon General’s report, research shows that this type of marketing is a primary cause of youth smoking. The tobacco industry spends $9.6 billion each year of their marketing budget to promote their deadly products at the retail environment. In New York State, that is just under a million dollars per day.

They also educated the group on electronic cigarettes or vapes, as they are becoming popular among youth and young adults. Electronic cigarette companies are using strategies from Big Tobacco’s “playbook” to lure people in to start using their products. They try to sell a lifestyle or image, as well as use bright colors, cool cases, flavors and popular kid-friendly brands, such as Hello Kitty and superhero themed vape pens. Vape shops have been known to use edgy ways to sell their products, like using prescription bottles to sell vape liquids or appealing flavors like glazed donut, fruity pebbles, and blue raspberry cotton candy. Electronic cigarettes are also being used by youth and young adults as a drug delivery device – replacing nicotine with other drugs, such as marijuana.

Currently, there are 46 tobacco and electronic cigarette retailers in Cortland County. Within the City of Cortland, 83% of those retailers fall within 1500ft of proximity to schools. Children and teenagers are routinely exposed to tobacco marketing on a daily basis while on their way to school. Many students that walk or ride the city school buses may pass a tobacco retailer at least once per day.

At the end of the presentation, Kelsey and Katherine educated the Rotary Club on a solution that many municipalities across New York State are working on to protect youth from tobacco marketing, which is to adopt local licensing regulations that prevent tobacco sales, as well as electronic cigarette and smoking paraphernalia/device sales, near school property. A letter of support was presented to the Rotary Club to discuss and consider signing to protect youth in our community. Licensing is a powerful tool that can help minimize pro-drug messaging and help to reduce youth and adult tobacco use.

For more information about the harmful effects of tobacco marketing in retail stores, visit or contact Community Engagement Coordinator Jennifer Hamilton 607-758-5501; or Reality Check Coordinator Melissa Potter 607-756-3416;

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