Star Tribune

Tobacco companies are doing an end run around Minnesota laws by wrapping cigarettes in brown paper and calling them "little cigars.''

State lawmakers should act quickly to close this tax and regulation loophole, not only for revenue reasons but to prevent tobacco companies from hooking younger generations on their products.

Packages of so-called "little cigars" retail in Minnesota for less than half the price of a traditional cigarette brand -- $1.99 vs. $5.70 during a recent check at a local convenience store.

That price point and the little cigars' fruity flavors make them attractive to teens and young adults.

The per-pack difference is mainly because cigarettes are subject to a minimum price law in the state and are taxed much more than discount little cigars, which are wrongly classified as "other tobacco products.''

If you put a Marlboro 100 cigarette next to a strawberry-flavored Swisher Sweet little cigar, even hard-core smokers would be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

Little cigars have the same size and shape as cigarettes. They have filters. They commonly come 20 to a package.

They're essentially the same product other than the brown paper wrapping, which contains just enough tobacco pulp to give it color.

But the tobacco's presence means that these products are not considered cigarettes.

It doesn't make sense, and it needs to change.

Making these products' price more equal to cigarettes will help deter smokers and prevent high health care costs in years to come.

This is a critical public health priority that will help hold down future costs of private medical insurance premiums and public programs such as Medicare and Medicaid -- the two big, expensive, government-run health care programs for the elderly and the poor.

It's galling to think that tobacco companies are thumbing their noses at both state and federal tax laws while health conditions strongly linked with their products contribute mightily toward the nation's soaring $2.3 trillion annual medical bill.

This isn't about raising taxes. It's about accountability and ending tobacco companies' exploitation of a loophole.

Minnesota lawmakers neglected to change little cigars' classification when they updated state tobacco laws last year.

Those new and much-needed regulations put many new smokeless and spitless tobacco products -- such as "orbs," which look like breath mints and dissolve in your mouth -- behind store counters and out of reach of young customers.

That's an important step when the latest data shows that smokeless tobacco products' use is increasing in Minnesota while adult smoking is declining.

This year, lawmakers need to complete their work by tackling little cigars. There's bipartisan support for doing so.

State Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, has expressed interest in carrying such a bill. Loon, who is a mom and assistant majority leader, said such a change probably won't raise a lot of revenue but is an important step to safeguard young people.

State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who championed the 2010 tobacco changes, is also supportive. Dibble tried to change the classification last year but ran into a tobacco lobbyist buzz saw.

"A cigarette is a cigarette,'' Dibble said. "We shouldn't allow it to escape on a narrow technical definition.''

Congress also needs to scrutinize the issue. It increased the federal excise tax on little cigars in 2009.

Makers of little cigars responded by slightly increasing the weight so that the products were classified and taxed like regular stogies.

Federal lawmakers have a loophole to close, too.

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