Q: As more states legalize cannabis I worry that my kids will start to see commercials and advertisements that might entice them to try cannabis. What protections exist around advertising cannabis to minors?
A: Most states that have legalized cannabis have very strict laws on advertising to consumers, especially those with medical cannabis. Remember it’s only been in the last 30 years that the FDA, which regulates pharmaceutical advertising to consumers, has allowed direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising. And if you have ever seen a commercial about any drug, there is a list of every potential side effect known to man at the end. It makes you wonder why anyone would want to take these medications.
However, right now, because cannabis is federally illegal, the FDA doesn’t have any jurisdiction over cannabis. Additionally, since the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) regulates interstate and international communications by radio and television, so you will probably not be seeing any advertisements on those forms of media any time soon. In 1971 they banned TV commercials with cigarette ads (though, the alcohol and beer commercials still allowed do seem to glorify young adult consumption, aside from their final warning to drink responsibly). Each state that has legalized cannabis for medical use or adult-use does have strict laws in place attempting to keep it out of the hands of children.
One common policy meant to protect children is advertising restrictions, which decrease children’s exposure to cannabis. Research has shown that children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to advertising, often accepting advertising claims at their face value as true. It’s estimated that over $12 billion dollars a year are spent by marketers and advertisers on the youth market. We have already seen the dangers and susceptibility of teens to vaping ads, with over 2.4 million middle school and high school students using e-cigarettes. And just recently JUUL had to pay a $439 million dollar settlement for marketing to teens.
Therefore, to better preserve the safety of our youth, many states like Maryland enacted statutes to ensure any application or placement of advertising for medical dispensaries, products, or related services are not located within 500 feet of any childcare facility, primary or secondary school, playground, recreation center, library, or public park.
Likewise, the content of the advertisement is critical. Studies have shown that children 4-11 years old still have a naivety with respect to understanding the hidden commercial messaging behind cartoon characters, so using these characters or mascots, which are very attractive to children, is problematic in advertisements. Additionally, to illustrate the power that cartoon characters can hold over children in food advertisements, one Scandinavian study found that showing cartoon characters eating vegetables can promote healthy snacking for kids. This is why cannabis advertising restrictions prohibit any representation in the designs that might be attractive to minors. Often, they explicitly describe no pictures, illustrations, or depiction of cartoon characters or mascots.
And advertising restrictions need to go hand in hand with specific requirements for labeling and packaging. In Maryland, the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission (MMCC) states that product labels and packaging shall also not have any graphics or images that are cartoons or even color schemes that might be attractive to children, just in case those curious little hands find a package of edibles at home.
And of course, all these measures must be followed up with good practices at home, keeping both medical and adult-use recreational cannabis locked up and away from children and adolescents just the way we do with alcohol and other prescription drugs.
Dr. Leigh Vinocur is a board-certified emergency physician who also has a cannabis consulting practice for patients and industry. She is a member of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians and a graduate of the inaugural class, with the first Master of Science in the country in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics from the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.
Originally published on greenstate.com, September 27, 2022.