Taking a page from the tobacco industry’s long and contentious love-hate relationship with governmental agencies and anti-tobacco groups can help the cannabis industry endure short-term pain for long-term gains.
In Dear Cannabis Part I, I mentioned that beyond the youth-appealing cannabis strain and CBD brand names, factors like the rampant industry-wide quality control issues, poor age verification protocols, irresponsible retailing and social media practices are going to drive unwanted attention and create significant hurdles on the road to full cannabis legalization.
Here are some actions the cannabis industry should take to minimize potential roadblocks:
Lead the conversation – after decades of secrecy and negation about the health risks of tobacco in depositions in front of Congress, the tobacco industry was outed. The major manufacturers were sued by the states for billions of dollars. This led to the Master Settlement Agreement were the companies agreed to pay billions of dollars, in perpetuity, to the states and cease certain marketing practices. They began opening up and leading the conversation about the health risks of tobacco and engaging with a range of stakeholders to better understand and address societal expectations and concerns to their businesses.
Quality control – this article from ABC7/WJLA in Washington DC discusses how @Ellipse Analytics tested the top-selling 240 products for 300 contaminants and for truth in labeling. After thousands of tests, 70 percent of products were found "highly contaminated" with heavy metals like lead and arsenic, herbicides like glyphosate (the active ingredient in RoundUp) and a host of other contaminants including pesticides, BPA and toxic mold. The FDA is paying close attention and will send very detailed letters to those found in violation of the FD&C Act. Borrowing from one of Jordan Peterson’s rules for life, “#CleanUpYourRoom.”
Responsible retailing – retail is a battleground for brand awareness. There was a time when hundreds of pieces of small and high dollar tobacco branded materials were plastered throughout stores. The tobacco category was self-service and placed in the farthest corner of the store (to drive traffic; like milk in the supermarket.) From the street to the restrooms the big brands battled for the best placement (both in quantity of pieces and quality of placement.) Cigarette advertising at children eye level in the front counter, self-service tobacco products merchandised next to candy. Fast forward to 2020 and 99% of the tobacco category is merchandised behind the front counter. One tobacco company’s POS placement guidelines require in-store advertising in contracted stores to be placed no further than 48 inches from the tobacco category.
Robust identity verification - California’s attorney Xavier Becerra alleged in a lawsuit filed against JUUL recently that “the age-verification system for the e-cigarette maker did not adequately vet customers, permitting “thousands” of deliveries to “phony names and addresses in California,” including 17 shipments to an individual named “Beer Can.” Real electronic age verification (EAV) works by comparing personal information an individual provides against public-records databases and other third-party data sources to find matching records that independently verify the personal information, and confirm that the individual is old enough to access the website. If the individual's age cannot be verified, then he or she is denied access to the marketing related website content. I am proud to say that our company’s consumer website, Lypper.com, sits on a more robust EAV platform than a multi-billion-dollar company’s branded website that I tested recently. Dear cannabis, it’s better to err on the side of erroneously turning away someone over the legal age to purchase adult products than letting an underage consumer access and purchase from your site.
Limit exposure to unintended audiences – while consumers are free to post almost anything they want on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Tik Tok, Quora, etc… the most responsible tobacco companies stay away from these platforms because there’s no way to limit advertising to adult consumers 21 and over. These platforms do not offer effective age filtering mechanisms to ensure underage consumers are shielded from tobacco advertising. While no system is perfect, one of the practices that I observed while in the tobacco industry includes ad placements in media vehicles (whether print or digital) with readership/viewership of 85% over 21 years of age.
While haters will be haters, real concerns exist about product integrity and underage access and appeal of products meant for adult consumption. Companies should have documented policies in place to adequately safeguard and minimize potential disruption on the way to full cannabis legalization.