Curbing exposure to weed and alcohol marketing can improve teens’ mental health

Sometimes, it seems that we’re doing all we can to sabotage our own efforts to reverse the nation’s mental health and addiction crises, which disproportionately affect children, teens and young adults. Particularly here in Illinois, where we’re on pace to surpass our current record highs in overdose deaths, and youth suicide lifeline programs are struggling to keep up with overwhelming demand.

There is so much dismal news about young people struggling with mental health problems, suicide, fentanyl, vaping, social media, pornography and online gambling. Yet we continue to overlook one of the most effective and expedient ways to address these problems: regulatory action to curb youth exposure and access to addictive, unhealthy influences purportedly meant for adults only.


Decades of scary commercials about smoking-related lung problems did less to shift the trajectory of youth smoking than enacting smoke-free or “clean air” laws and tax hikes that dissuaded youths from buying cigarettes. Hours of lectures to school kids about the risks of e-cigarettes did less to stabilize the frightening spike in youth vaping than did government bans on certain flavored vapes and reduced access to brands that were most popular with kids at the time.

Protecting addiction-for-profit businesses with our policies has the opposite impact: Current research demonstrates that the marijuana industry systematically advertises to youths and that the more available marijuana is and the more exposure youths have to those advertisements, the more they tend to use THC products or view getting high as “normal” teen behavior. The same holds true for nicotine. Vaping companies are using the classic Big Tobacco marketing playbook, and the more that youths are exposed to vaping ads, the greater their likelihood of vaping. And no matter how much we claim that marijuana or gambling legalization applies only to adults, ubiquitous ads on social media, provocative c annabis billboards on the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway, clever marketing and celebrity promotions have made marijuana use and online betting routine activities for teens and emerging adults.

Regardless of the substance or activity, a regulatory agenda dictated primarily by the industries that most stand to profit from loose regulations harms young people. The need to change criminal justice policies that have historically led to disproportionate and inequitable punishments for marginalized and disadvantaged communities must not be conflated with government support for the commercialization and normalization of addictive substances and behaviors.

These policies harm public health and disproportionately harm young people, who are neurologically more vulnerable to addiction than adults. Whereas it’s obvious that we need to reform our drug laws in this country and have a less paternalistic and inequitable regulatory system, legalization of addictive products and behaviors in the United States inevitably leads to unbridled commercialization and costly and harmful consequences to the most vulnerable among us, especially kids.

Despite knowing this and repeatedly having to pay the price for forgetting the lessons we should have learned from allowing industry marketing to speed ahead of sensible regulations, we continually make way for new addictive products and services that are detrimental to them. Whether it’s social media, nicotine vaping, online betting, flavored alcohol drinks or high-potency THC edibles, we let for-profit industries normalize their use, reduce perception of their harm and increase youth access in ways that directly and undoubtedly influence children’s health and well-being.

None of this is to say that products and services such as these should be banned. But if they are for adults, as the law and common sense say they should be, there must be higher and stronger guardrails in place to ensure they are not available to children and teens. Also, enforceable regulations should be in place to prevent their marketing, sale and appeal to minors.

Many people believe or argue that it’s the sole responsibility of parents to safeguard children from products and services that are legal for adults to use. But how difficult we choose to make this task for parents is up to us, and anyone who has raised a child knows that the financial interests aligned against parents in this regard are mighty.

It’s time to back up our words with action and stand behind our purported concern for the well-being of youths with effective regulatory actions. We must prevent well-financed, profit-driven enterprises from enticing teens with all manner of child-friendly tactics and instead implement effective and well-enforced guardrails around the marketing and sale of addiction to kids.

Aaron Weiner, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and addiction specialist from Lake Forest. Linda Richter, Ph.D., is senior vice president of prevention research and analysis at Partnership to End Addiction, a national nonprofit organization based in New York.

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