Pot Ads Linked to Problematic Use in Teens, Study Finds

Those billboard and storefront advertisements now ubiquitous in many cities are intended for adults, but the messages are being received by a younger audience, leading some teens who get high to have symptoms of a cannabis use disorder.

A cannabis billboard in Seattle in 2016. (Credit: adrienblanc via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

(CN) — Teens who routinely see ads for recreational pot are more likely to use the drug on regular basis, according to a new study published Thursday in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Those billboard and storefront advertisements now ubiquitous in many cities are intended for adults, but the messages are being received by a younger audience, leading some teens who get high to have symptoms of a cannabis use disorder.

In every state where recreational pot is legal, you must be 21 or older to use it, but “legalization may alter the ways that youth use cannabis,” write the study authors, led by Pamela Trangenstein of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

As public concern over the risks of cannabis use has declined, more states have legalized it despite a growing body of research identifying problems from long-term use, including neuropsychiatric conditions, automobile crashes and substance use disorders.

These negative outcomes tend to be more severe for teens. That’s because cannabinoid receptors are crucial for brain development, which is why cannabis use during adolescence carries special risk, according to the 2019 Surgeon General’s report.

To gather data, Trangenstein and her colleagues placed ads on social media and apps to recruit nearly 200 teens. Participants were ages 15 to 19 and lived in states with legal recreational marijuana and had used pot at least once.

The teens answered questions about their marijuana use and marketing exposure from pot shops and other companies. Questions included if they owned or were likely to buy cannabis-branded merchandise (hats, sunglasses or t-shirts with cannabis logos) and if they had a favorite brand or strain of cannabis.

“Compared with those who never saw billboard or storefront ads, those who said they saw them ‘most of the time’ or ‘always’ had seven times the odds of frequent cannabis use and nearly six times the odds of having symptoms of cannabis use disorder,” the study found.

Those teens who had a favorite brand were three times as likely to use pot regularly and exhibit symptoms of cannabis use disorder compared with those who did not have a preferred brand. And adolescents who owned cannabis-branded merchandise were 23 times more likely to use frequently use as those who did not own pot merchandise.

While research into cannabis marketing is new, studies on alcohol and tobacco advertising indicate that “associations between ads and use may not stop at experimentation — ad exposure may facilitate progression toward problematic use, and their association may even be causal,” Trangenstein and her colleagues note.

As more states legalize recreational marijuana, additional study is needed on the collateral effect this effort has on adolescents, the researchers say.

“(S)tates and other localities with legalized cannabis should exercise special caution regarding forms of marketing that promote brand identification and engagement with youth,” the study states.

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