Valley Voices

Fresno students get savvy to the power of unhealthy storefront ads

Dr. Ken Bird is Fresno County’s health officer.
Dr. Ken Bird is Fresno County’s health officer. Fresno Bee file

Yesenia Cuenca is one of many young adults in Fresno who are empowering themselves to ensure healthier lives for themselves and others. Here is an excerpt from a recent report she wrote.

“On my way to Hoover High School,” she says, “I pass by 98 tobacco ads, 87 sugary drink ads, and 153 alcohol ads. Across town, just a quarter-mile from Roosevelt High School, are six access points to tobacco, sugary drinks and liquor within one major intersection of the school. As an 18-year-old young woman living in Fresno, I feel this is an injustice to me and my peers.

“This issue should be important to the entire community of Fresno, because young people are easily influenced by alcohol, tobacco, and sugary-drink ads to make unhealthy choices.

“As a youth leader for the Youth Leadership Institute, we have as a team been inspired to take action to ensure our community is a healthier and safer place to live. We started with educating ourselves about storefront advertising, doing online research and conducting our own assessment. We took community walks to pinpoint the access points of tobacco, sugary drinks and alcohol ads.

“Research shows that exposure to the storefront ads makes youths more inclined to try these harmful products. Our team reviewed research from the American Academy of Pediatrics and found that the tobacco industry spends about $30 million a day ($11.2 billion a year) on advertisements alone. Exposure to these ads pose a great risk to youths, even when parents advise their children not to use tobacco.

“More than 20 studies found that children who are exposed to tobacco advertising are more likely to become smokers.

“Youth leaders feel this an injustice because most of these advertisements are placed in low-income neighborhoods. To address the issue, we shared our knowledge with those who could help make a difference. We built relationships with city council members in Fresno and educated them about the health impacts of unhealthy advertisement on youths.

“In December 2015, the Fresno City Council unanimously voted to update the Development Code to reduce storefront advertising. No more than 15 percent of clear doors and windows of alcohol retailers can be covered by signs. No more than 25 percent of tobacco retailers storefront windows and clear doors can be covered by signs.”

Yesenia’s story is tragic and, at the same time, inspirational. The tragedy is that so much financial capital is invested in targeting products to our youths that contribute to premature death. Astounding resources are being poured into marketing of unhealthful products that can never be matched by public or private organizations to counter their effects.

We seem inured to this constant bombardment, but we all suffer the effects, nevertheless.

In this country, almost 1 in 10 individuals have diabetes. Worse, more than 1 in 3 of us has pre-diabetes, a direct result of the sugary beverages we drink. Tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of death, killing more than 480,000 every year.

Excessive alcohol use led to almost 88,000 deaths each year from 2006 to 2010, making it the fourth-leading preventable cause of death in this country.

What is inspirational in this story is that youths everywhere are beginning to realize they are being targeted and are joining together and with others, to create ways to minimize the ubiquitous exposures to unhealthful messages.

This effort exemplifies how Fresno County’s eight pillars of public health support health and well-being with:

▪ Individuals learning about the adverse health effects of these products, how to reduce or avoid their consumption, and how to work toward decreasing pressure to consume these products.

▪ Families ensuring a supportive environment for discussing these issues, and encouraging local retailers to minimize marketing of unhealthful products to our children.

▪ Employers incorporating reminders in the workplace to avoid these products to better maintain health and well-being.

▪ Educators developing curricula on avoidance of these products in the context of health and wellness.

▪ Health care providers enhancing patients’ knowledge about these products and their health effects.

▪ Retailers assuring that our community has ready and affordable access to healthful products, with limited marketing of unhealthful products.

▪ Community, spiritual, and media leaders enhancing partnerships to empower the members of their community to assess their health needs and implement actions proven to be effective in addressing those needs.

▪ Public officials assuring that decisions they make reflect a careful consideration of their public health impact.

Youths such as Yesenia deserve the opportunity to lead healthy lives. Visit to learn more and get involved.

Yesenia Cuenca is SouthEast Neighborhood Transformation Team Leader for the Youth Leadership Institute. Dr. Ken Bird is Fresno County health officer.