January 14, 2005
By Andrew Sleighter
U.S. Smokeless Tobacco is distributing free samples of chewing tobacco in Whatcom County bars and restaurants, even though the practice is illegal in some parts of the state of Washington.
According to the King County Board of Health, giving free samples of any tobacco product in King County was banned in 1991.
Ten distribution dates are scheduled for January and will be held at five different bars in Blaine, Ferndale and Bellingham, said Jon Schwartz, a media representative for U.S. Smokeless Tobacco. At the promotions, two representatives of U.S. Smokeless Tobacco give out half-cans of Copenhagen, Skoal or Rooster along with t-shirts to people in bars. To get the cans a person has to fill out a form identifying his or her age, tobacco history and brand preference.
State Republican Sen. Bob Oke, who represents parts of Pierce and Kitsap counties, is proposing bill 5048, which would create a statewide ban on free samples of tobacco. Michelle Lewis, Oke’s senior legislative aide, said the bill is going to committee Monday morning and they are optimistic it will become law.
Lewis said the issue came to Oke five years ago when parents complained about their children coming home from the Gorge with free tobacco products.
“It just doesn’t make sense to be handing out a deadly product,” Lewis said.
Dr. Chris Covert-Bowlds is a member of Healthy Indoor Air for All Washington, a coalition to prohibit smoking in all workplaces. Covert-Bowlds said he believes handing out free samples of tobacco products is irresponsible and a threat to public health.
“It’s trying to addict people to a product by allowing free sampling,” Covert-Bowlds said.
Tobacco companies, by law, are no longer able to market to anyone younger than 18. Covert-Bowlds said he believes these handouts are a way for U.S. Smokeless to get around that.
“The average age people start chewing tobacco in this country is 12. These companies know that. Now they have to limit their targeting to 18 and over, so now their chief age group is 18 to 24. And of course that’s who the 12- to 18-year-olds want to be treated like,” Covert-Bowlds said. “The best way to market to people under 18 is to market to people just over 18.”
Jon Schwartz, a media representative for U.S. Smokeless Tobacco, disagrees with the notion that the company is targeting minors.
“We distribute handouts to adults only in adult-only facilities,” Schwartz said.
Covert-Bowlds said the tobacco handouts have been occurring at all-ages events like tractor pulls and the Puyallup fair. While acknowledging that U.S. Smokeless Tobacco does have promotions at these sorts of events, Schwartz said an adult-only tent is constructed to keep minors from sampling.
Schwartz said U.S. Smokeless Tobacco has spent $100 million to combat underage tobacco use and that it only advertises in adult publications.
The Campus Community Coalition, a group at Western promoting alcohol responsibility, has determined that selling under-priced drinks is irresponsible. Covert-Bowlds compared this phenomona to chewing tobacco. Tobacco is highly addictive and poses as many if not more health problems than alcohol — and free is most certainly under-priced, Covert-Bowlds said.
Bob Plowman is the owner of Bob’s OK Corral in Blaine, which will have a tobacco giveaway night Jan. 21. He said, in general, only people already using chewing tobacco actually use the samples.
“Most people don’t just pick up a can of chew, put it in their mouth and try it,” Plowman said.
Plowman said U.S. Smokeless Tobacco did not pay him.
“I get nothing from it, other than the fact that people like free t-shirts,” Plowman said.
Ian Relay, the owner of the Up and Up bar in Bellingham, also hosts U.S. Smokeless Tobacco giveaways. Unlike Plowman, Relay is paid for having the promotions at his bar but he declined to say how much.
Relay, like Plowman, said he believes those taking the samples are not trying it for the first time.
“I have never noticed a preponderance of piles of puke in here. Therefore, people are not trying it for the first time, because if you drink beer and try your first dip, you’re going to puke,” Relay said. “Therefore, they are just giving tobacco to people who are already chewing.”