Kids, Marijuana and Mad Men

Love it or hate it – advertising works. Proof comes in the form of the annual $70 billion U.S. advertising industry. Everything from potato chips to cell phones to banking and even cancer care is bolstered by a healthy marketing budget.

The truth is that we are all influenced by advertising. Even when we don’t realize it or are unwilling to admit it, effective advertising seeps into our thoughts and influences our behavior as consumers. Advertising drives sales and grows businesses. Especially susceptible to advertising’s wills are the young, open and less cynical minds of kids.

They, along with their moms and dads, are arguably America’s most sought-after consumer base. Young people are both directly targeted and unintentionally exposed to the whirlwind of ads that surround their daily existence. Too often, they sit too closely on the periphery of messages not intended for them, like those for beer, distilled spirits, tobacco and unhealthy food choices. These now include advertising designed to increase sales of medical and recreational marijuana.

Ads for marijuana have already surfaced in states that have passed these initiatives. What we see – as a public health nonprofit with roots in the advertising industry – is the potential for significant childhood exposure to marketing of an alluring, newly legal drug. Advertising that will have the net communication that it’s okay to use marijuana.

And some might argue that the future pool of customers for the legal marijuana industry will be kids and teens since past-month marijuana use – particularly heavy use – has increased significantly among U.S. high school students since 2008. Kids are still more likely to smoke marijuana than adults and even twentysomethings, presenting a real marketing conundrum for marijuana retailers who seek to increase their business and expand their markets, while also claiming they are only targeting consenting adults. The ongoing roll-out of marijuana-infused candies, sodas, and edible products that appeal to younger cohorts is just one example of quickly increasing marketing and merchandising to make this product more appealing and accessible.

In the complicated debates around marijuana legalization, many are talking about new tax revenues and adults’ ability to choose, but precious few of us are talking with families about what this means for them – or considering how all this affects the healthy development of their kids.

Our recent research reports that roughly 50 percent of all parents have used marijuana and that 40 percent of adults believe marijuana should be legal. However, parents have serious expectations that legal marijuana will be heavily regulated to protect kids.

More than 80 percent of parents surveyed in Colorado and Washington, two states where recreational marijuana is now legal, believe “marijuana advertising should still be banned.” When forced to choose, a majority of parents identify the number one place where it should be permissible to advertise marijuana as “nowhere.” But those expectations from parents far exceed how legal marijuana is actually being implemented. The advertising limitations that are in place in these states will be subject to future court challenges over first amendment protected speech.

While there’s an urgency to discuss taxing marijuana, how to deal with banking the profits of retailers and in what ways a lucrative new industry will grow its sales, there’s also a contradictory “we’ll think about it tomorrow” attitude on how to go about effectively communicating the health risks of use to families and kids. Our nation’s past experiences with alcohol and tobacco regulation suggests we’re destined to fail at banning the mass marketing of a growing, profitable and legal industry, contradicting parents’ desires to protect their kids from such ads.

So, what are we to do? For starters, let’s keep talking with parents and families specifically about the health risks of pre-teens and teenagers using marijuana. Let’s guide them to have effective conversations with their kids about why marijuana is not a good choice for their developing brains – even if mom or dad used it back in the days when they were teenagers.

We certainly don’t have all of the answers, but we do know from calls to our parents toll-free helpline and from posts on our website and in social media that families want sensible, health-based guidance on how to navigate this new, legalized landscape on behalf of their kids. While we can and do provide that, much more is needed across society.

There is inherent power in advertising and delivering persuasive messages. Messages that help young consumers form personal opinions and beliefs about a product ultimately drive their individual behavior. Yet the most important messengers – the most powerful influencers – in the lives of kids are their parents.

The time is now to start talking about this new world of marijuana and children’s health at home before our kids get the wrong messages somewhere else.