After decades of battling secondhand tobacco smoke, the Washoe County Health District has a new public health challenge and no funds with which to fight it: marijuana.
That was the message Wednesday from public health officials at the first annual Nevada Cannabis and Vaping Summit.
“Our campaigns were not funded with specific money for outreach. We pulled them from other projects because we knew this, the message was very important,” Erin Dixon, the public health supervisor for the Washoe County Health District, said at the summit.
Secondhand marijuana smoke contains many of the same cancer-causing substances and toxic chemicals as secondhand tobacco smoke and can have similar negative impacts on cardiovascular health, warns the American Lung Association.
With the reduction of cigarette use in the U.S. and the increase in cannabis use, public health officials have argued that public health campaigns must address the newly legalized drug.
A lack of federal dollars for marijuana education has also been an issue. Federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not fund marijuana related public health campaigns because it remains illegal under federal law, meaning state officials are left on their own.
To keep costs low, the county has used billboards and social media to spread public health information but health officials argue that more is needed to protect public health.
“We found a large gap in what consumers knew. Consumers just didn’t know how much edibles to consume and how not to take that second dose,” Dixon said.
That gap in information can have lethal health implications. In 2019, the Las Vegas Metro Police Department (LVMPD) recorded 272 auto collisions involving cannabis, a significant increase from 2016 when there were 102.
“You can see the increase over the years,” since recreational use for cannabis was legalized, said Lt. Eric Calhoun at the summit. Calhoun commands Metro’s narcotics division.
There is a lot of misinformation on cannabis use among pregnant women, youth and other target populations, said Dixon, of the Washoe County Health District. The lack of resources in the department has hindered public health outreach among those populations.
Dixon said health officials regularly have to counter false information, such as pregnant women being told to smoke marijuana or cannabis to help with nausea.
“In my role with the (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) program we were seeing it on a daily basis,” Dixon said.
“It’s been a significant struggle for us. We do not have the resources to truly provide an effective campaign to get the information out and we can’t come combat it,” Dixon said.
For many years Washoe County has pushed to reduce indoor smoking in multi-unit housing. For residents of apartments and condominiums, secondhand smoke can be a major concern. It can seep in from other units and common areas and travel through doorways, cracks in walls, electrical outlets and ventilation systems.
“We often get phone calls from someone who says, ‘I’ve been living in this apartment for five years, I have a child with asthma. And now I have secondhand smoke infiltrating through my apartment’,” Dixon said. “Many people do not have the resources to get up and move.”
Several ongoing studies in Nevada focused on advertising can bring insight on how to improve public health around cannabis use, said Jennifer Pearson, assistant professor for the School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Looking at a store front or billboard for cannabis shops in Nevada, symbols like green crosses advertise dispensaries as pharmacies or places to buy medicine rather than selling a recreational substance, Pearson said.
“They might anticipate that cannabis will help a person relax or become more sociable, given the advertising that they have seen in their lives,” Pearson said.
One study Pearson is working on looks at billboards advertising cannabis. About 12 percent of billboards in Nevada advertised cannabis as a wellness or health product.
“Nevada doesn’t have cannabis regulations against selling propositions,” Pearson said.
In an analysis of the International Cannabis Policy Study, Pearson found that in 2019 about 74 percent of Nevadans remembered seeing cannabis ads in the past 12 months, however, only about 36 percent remembered seeing a public health message in that same time.
Nevadans — including 85 percent of people under the legal cannabis purchase age — recalled seeing a cannabis ad and the majority remembered billboard ads.
“Public health messaging, as of right now, is completely being washed out as well as out–competed by industry marketing,” Pearson said.