Several months ago, the State of California launched “Healthy Stores for a Healthy Community,” a statewide campaign to improve health by informing Californians about the impact stores have in marketing unhealthy products.

In tandem with that effort, the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department studied tobacco, alcohol and food sales in local stores countywide. It was the first time all three kinds of products were analyzed together.

The results were cause for concern: The county found that young people have amazingly easy access to tobacco and alcohol near schools. In fact, the study found that it’s often as easy for young people to buy tobacco as candy bars.

Tobacco products are sold next to candies at checkout areas in nearly half the stores in this state, whether small convenience stores, supermarkets, drug stores or big-box stores. In all, 7,400 stores were included in the statewide study.

The goal was to see how the availability of products could impact health.

In gathering the data for the study, it became clear that small flavored cigars or cigarillos are growing in popularity. In Santa Barbara County alone, nearly 80 percent of tobacco outlets, mostly located near schools, sell these products. Nationally, it has been reported that two out of five middle school students who smoke use cigarillos. The most popular brand costs less than $1 at most sites.

Other novelty products that are enticing to young people include alcopops, which are alcoholic drinks that resemble soda or sparkling juice drinks. The county’s study showed that these products are sold at 91 percent of tobacco outlets countywide, which is higher than the state average. More than half the stores had alcohol ads near candy and toys, or at a child’s eye level.

More than 66 percent of the tobacco retailers surveyed are closer than 1,000 feet to a school. This means that our young people are exposed to unhealthy products regularly. Only about 10 percent of the stories surveyed advertised healthy foods.

Of course, we all see these messages every day, to the point where we tune them out and don’t even notice. That is not necessarily the case with young people. The unhealthy messages that bombard kids, and the ads for unhealthy products, surround young people and become difficult for them to ignore.

Dr. Takashi Wada, deputy health officer and director of the county’s Public Health Department, said it best: “We all need to be more aware of these influences in our neighborhoods.” He said it’s important to work with store owners, families and community partners to protect our young people and make our communities healthier.

We strongly applaud the Public Health Department for these important efforts to help improve the health of our young people.

— Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s superintendent of schools. The opinions expressed are his own.