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Sonoma County ranks poorly in key categories of a new statewide survey that examines the sale, marketing and advertising of unhealthy products such as tobacco, sugary drinks and junk food.

Results of the survey found that 81.5 percent of stores in the county sell sugary drinks at the checkout counter and within 1,000 feet of schools; the statewide average is 55.6 percent.

The survey also found that 77.8percent of stores in Sonoma County sold candy, mint and liquor-flavored non-cigarette tobacco products within 1,000 feet of schools — slightly higher than the statewide average of 75.3 percent.

"Here in Sonoma County, about 450 stores sell tobacco; close to 20 percent of those stores sell tobacco within 1,000 feet of a school," said Karen Holbrook, Sonoma County's interim public health officer.

"Do we really want a deadly, addictive product to be heavily marketed near our schools?" Holbrook said at a press conference Wednesday morning.

Local health experts said the survey highlighted troubling advertising and marketing strategies that often are geared toward young people. These include aggressively marketing such products as chocolate-flavored e-cigarettes and colorfully packaged "alcopops," alcoholic beverages sweetened to taste like soft drinks.

"That's not for the 40-year-old man," said Ellen Swedberg, health information specialist for the Sonoma County Department of Health Services, referring to candy-flavored e-cigarettes. "That's for kids. It's a starter."

Despite the poor marks for stores near schools, Sonoma County did fare better than the state average in a few key categories, such as the sale and consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Nearly 53 percent of stores in Sonoma County sell fruits and vegetables, compared with 42 percent statewide. The county and state were almost equal in the percentage of stores that sold "good quality" fruits and vegetables at 33 percent.

Similarly, nearly 34 percent of adults said they ate three or more vegetables within the past day, according to the survey, compared with slightly more than 27 percent statewide.

At Rancho Mendoza Supermercado in Santa Rosa, rows of limes, broccoli, peppers and other fresh produce products are situated next to a refrigerator case that is stocked with alcoholic beverages and ice cream treats.

The store has "whatever I need" in fresh produce, said Marcelino Tenorio of Santa Rosa. Tenorio says he shops at the market frequently to get fresher produce. Wednesday it was bananas, but the day before it was strawberries and papaya.

Cigarettes are completely out of sight. Customers must ask cashiers in order to purchase them and packs are kept in drawers at pay stations.

Pedro Martinez picked up bananas Wednesday night. He said buying fresh produce is easy because he lives near the Piner Road market.

At Carniceria Coalcoman and Pacific Market, both in Santa Rosa, customers must walk through stands of fresh fruit and vegetables to enter the store.

The statewide survey collected data from 7,300 retail stores in all 58 counties, including convenience and liquor stores, supermarkets, grocery stores, tobacco shops, discount outlets, drug stores and big-box stores.

In Sonoma County, 172 stores were surveyed. Almost 70 percent of them advertised unhealthy products on store exteriors, compared to 15.1 percent that advertised healthy products outside the stores.

About 83 percent of Sonoma County stores sell flavored tobacco products and 90 percent of stores sell alcopops.

In Mendocino County, 87.5 percent of the 72 stores surveyed sell candy-, mint- and liquor-flavored non-cigarette tobacco products and almost 93 percent sold alcopops.

And in Lake County, 100 percent of the 53 stores surveyed sell such tobacco products near a school. All 53 Lake County stores surveyed sell alcopops.

The survey is part of a statewide collaboration between tobacco and alcohol prevention and nutrition groups and agencies. Locally, these include the county Department of Health Services, Northern California Center for Well Being and Community Action Partnership, among others.

Youth volunteers from a number of these organizations were trained last summer to collect the survey data between July and October.

The young people went out in groups of two, equipped with an iPod for taking photos of advertising and product placement. Using the iPods, volunteers uploaded the data to iSURVEY, where it was collected and compiled by the California Tobacco Control Program.

The project, which will continue for 10years, is supported by funds from the state's 25-cent cigarette tax.

Jessica Garcia, a 17-year-old senior at Roseland University Prep, said the experience was an eye-opener to the barrage of advertising of tobacco and alcohol in low-income areas.

Garcia, who is part of the Center for Well Being's peer education group called Project True, grew up in Santa Rosa's Roseland neighborhood, which has a high density of stores marketing and selling unhealthy products.

"Whenever I walk in with my (8-year-old) brother, he's targeted," Garcia said. "With these ads, the more exposed kids are to these ads, the more likely they are to choose these brands."

One of the main goals of the campaign is to get store owners to change the placement of unhealthy products to less prominent locations, while increasing the prominence of healthy products such as fresh fruits and vegetables.

"We are looking at stores in our community to be our partners," said Brian Vaughn, a spokesman for the county health department.

In some cases, tobacco and vendors of unhealthy foods such as potato chips pay store owners to put their products in premium locations.

Healthy food advocates who attended the press conference Wednesday said one of the challenges will be figuring out ways to help local vendors make up for lost revenue by increasing the sale of healthy items, such as fruits and vegetables or healthy snacks, which sometimes have higher profit margins.

Katherine Fengler, a program specialist with the Mendocino County public health department, said that initial talks with store owners have been promising.

"All retailers we spoke with were open to making changes," Fengler said.

She said that Westside Renaissance Market, which she called the last "mom and pop" market in Ukiah, is committed to keeping tobacco products "out of sight" and selling healthy local products.

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield contributed to this article. Staff Writer Martin Espinoza can be reached at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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