Flavored and cheap, little cigars are attracting younger smokers
- Article by: SABRINA TAVERNISE
- New York Times
- August 17, 2013 - 7:23 PM
BALTIMORE – At Everest Greenish Grocery, a brightly lit store on a faded corner of this city, nothing is more popular than a chocolate-flavored little cigar. They are displayed just above the Hershey bars along with their colorful cigarillo cousins — white grape, strawberry, pineapple and Da Bomb Blueberry. And they were completely sold out by 9 one recent evening, snapped up by young people dropping by for a snack or stopping in during a night of bar hopping.
“Sorry, no more chocolate,” night clerk Qudrad Bari apologetically told a young woman holding a fruit drink.
An end-run around the law
In 2009, Congress passed a landmark law intended to eliminate an important gateway to smoking for young people by banning virtually all the flavors in cigarettes that advocates said tempted them. It was predicted that the change would lead to deep reductions in youth smoking. But the law was silent on flavors in cigars and other tobacco products, instead giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) broad discretion in regulating them.
Four years later, the agency has yet to assert that authority. And a rainbow of inexpensive, flavored cigars and cigarillos line the shelves of convenience stores and gas stations, often right next to the candy. FDA officials say they intend to regulate cigars and other tobacco products, but they do not say how or when. Smoking opponents contend that the agency’s delay is threatening recent progress in reducing smoking among young people.
Cigarette sales are down by a third over the past decade, according to federal data, but FDA critics say the gains are being offset by the rise of such less-expensive alternatives as cigars, whose sales have doubled over the same period and whose flavored varieties are smoked overwhelmingly by young people.
“The 20th century was the cigarette century, and we worked very hard to address that,” said Gregory N. Connolly, the director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Now the 21st century is about multiple tobacco products. They’re cheap. They’re flavored. And some of them you can use anywhere.”
The FDA is now wrestling with how to exercise its authority over an array of other tobacco products. “The giant has finally awoken and hopefully will do its job,” said Ron Bernstein, the chief executive of Liggett Vector Brands, a cigarette producer that is worried about unfair competition from cigar makers and others.
Mitchell Zeller, a public interest lawyer who became the director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products this spring, acknowledged that the emergence of new tobacco products meant a new look was needed.
“What we’ve seen in the past 10 years is this remarkable transformation of the marketplace,” Zeller said. “There are products being sold today — unregulated products — that literally did not exist 10 years ago.”
But new rules have to be grounded in scientific evidence, he said, and written to withstand legal challenges. The tobacco industry won a recent court fight against graphic images on cigarette labels.
As for the criticism that the agency has been slow to act, Zeller said, “Message received.”
But the FDA’s careful approach exasperates smoking opponents.
Sales jump 40 percent
“We shouldn’t need 40 years of study to figure out that chocolate- and grape-flavored cigars are being smoked by young people,” said Matthew L. Myers, the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Traditional handmade cigars were seen as a luxury for older men, but much of the recent growth has been in products sold in convenience stores to low-income customers. Flavored cigars now represent more than half of all convenience store and gas station cigar sales, up nearly 40 percent since 2008, according to Nielsen market data analyzed by Cristine Delnevo, a tobacco researcher at Rutgers University.
Cigar producers say they are bracing for FDA action. But they question a flavor ban, pointing out that the FDA has yet to prohibit the most common flavor, menthol, in cigarettes and that chewing tobacco still comes in flavors.
© 2013 Star Tribune