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Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death, yet the tobacco industry keeps finding ways to lure young people into this deadly habit.

In 2015, 51 percent of Montana high school students had tried e-cigarettes and 30 percent were regular users. These numbers are higher than the national average. Additionally, sweet-flavored tobacco products such as cigarillos are increasingly popular among youth.

The U.S. Surgeon General noted recently that e-cigarettes are now the most commonly used tobacco product among youth. Research shows that kids who use e-cigarettes are four times more likely to use conventional cigarettes. Because nearly nine out of 10 adult smokers start before age 18, preventing kids from getting hooked is vital to saving lives. Nearly 19,000 Montana children now under age 18 will die prematurely due to smoking.

These risks were highlighted in a recent health forum, "E-Cigarettes and Helena Kids: The Dangers You Need to Know," held at Capital High School. The event featured excellent presentations by state and local tobacco use prevention experts and Helena physician Robert Shepard.

As noted in the presentations, the tobacco industry now spends nearly all of its marketing dollars in businesses such as convenience stores. This marketing includes placing signs at eye level, where kids can see them and candy-colored displays of sweet flavored products, such as e-cigarettes and cigarillos. Flavors include cherry, grape and even bubblegum. Many stores place these products on the counter and near candy, within reach and easy view of youth.

These stores are popular after-school stops for kids. In fact, 70 percent of children visit convenience stores weekly, and many of these stores are near schools and parks. A 2010 study published in "Pediatrics" found that the odds of smoking more than doubled for teens who visited a store with tobacco advertising at least twice per week.

Parents need to be aware that their kids are being targeted in stores and that these products are not safe.

Research shows 99 percent of e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is highly addictive and harmful to the developing brain. Many also contain heavy metals, ultra-fine particulate and cancer-causing agents such as acrolein. The chemical flavorings found in e-cigarettes are not proven safe for inhalation and the batteries they contain pose a risk for explosions.

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A new Montana law that prevents sales of e-cigarettes to kids under age 18 is helping to reduce youth access to those products. However, kids can still attain e-cigarettes illegally from older friends.

In-store marketing, sweet flavors and innovative products such as e-cigarettes are how Big Tobacco creates new generations of smokers. We must know and understand their tactics and prevent our kids from falling into the trap of lifelong nicotine addiction and early death.

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Amanda Cahill is the Montana Director of Government Relations for the American Heart Association.


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