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How Tobacco Companies Are Hooking Kids

Cheap cigars taste like candy and fruit, but they’re dangerous

May. 7, 2013
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The good news is that teen smoking in Wisconsin has fallen to an all-time low. Just 13.1% of Wisconsin high school students reported smoking in 2012, down from 17.7% in 2010 and 32.9% in 2000. Just 2.5% of middle schoolers smoke, down from 3.9% two years prior and 12.2% a decade before, according to the latest Wisconsin Youth Tobacco Survey.

The bad news is that while teens aren’t smoking cigarettes as much as they used to, the number of teens who are smoking other tobacco products is alarming.

Maureen Busalacchi, executive director of Health First Wisconsin, said about half of teen smokers are regular users of fruit- and candy-flavored cigars and cigarillos, while far more have tried them.

These flavored cigars and cigarillos aren’t new, but they are cheap, easy to buy at convenience stores and gas stations and don’t taste like traditional cigarettes. Their packaging gives them the cool factor that kids are looking for.

That’s the point.

“You have to think about what the intent is,” said Michael Campbell, project manager for the Wisconsin African American Tobacco Prevention Network. “I think it’s another way to get another generation of tobacco users to use the products.”


Tobacco Companies Are Skirting Regulations

Despite tobacco cessation advocates’ best efforts, tobacco companies have developed products that exploit tax and regulation loopholes while hooking the next generation of smokers.

Kids aren’t allowed to purchase any sort of tobacco product, whether it’s cigarettes, cigars, blunt wraps or loose or chewing tobacco.

But Campbell said minors are getting their hands on tobacco, especially in Milwaukee’s central city. He said his organization and the Milwaukee Police Department did compliance checks at city retailers by having kids ask to buy tobacco products. And despite the law, Campbell said the teens were able to buy what they wanted.

Tobacco companies aren’t supposed to market to kids, either, thanks to the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between the attorneys general in 46 states and the four largest tobacco companies.

Regulations were further tightened in the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2009, which prohibited tobacco companies from flavoring their cigarettes with anything but menthol. That act also allowed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate the content, marketing and sale of tobacco products and required retailers to move their cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products behind the counter so that customers can’t access them without assistance.

But that’s just forced tobacco companies and retailers to change their tactics.

“What this has left us with is the very naked reality of candy- and fruit-flavored little cigars being at the front of the counter or placed by the candy,” Busalacchi said.

State Rep. Mandela Barnes (D-Milwaukee) said the bright, candy- or junk food-style packaging of the flavored cigars and cigarillos and their easy accessibility in stores sparks kids’ interest.

“They think, ‘What is that?’” Barnes said. “Then they’re more likely to try it because it looks like something they’re used to.”


Sweet, Cheap and Dangerous

Sickly sweet, fruit-flavored cigars or cigarillos can be purchased at any gas station or convenience store in packs of two or three for a dollar.

Busalacchi said their low price could be chalked up to a loophole in tobacco taxation, which her organization wants closed. While the tax alone on a pack of cigarettes is $2.52 in Wisconsin, a box of 20 little cigars can be purchased for as little as $2.39, she said.

And with names like “Executive Branch” and “Show Buzz” and images of strippers, luxury cars and wild animals, the tobacco companies can claim that these products aren’t specifically marketed to kids.

But kids are finding them.

The FDA reported that a March 2008 survey found that one in five kids ages 12-17 have seen flavored tobacco products or ads—far more than the one in ten adults who have seen them.

Even worse, kids are trying them.

“We were talking to some youth during a presentation last week, and those are the ‘cool’ cigars to them, rather than the fat ones that you usually associate with older gentlemen,” Campbell said. “The kids will smoke them, even though they aren’t supposed to be able to buy them.”

The United States surgeon general found that African American teenage girls were the most likely to smoke flavored cigars.

These things pack a punch, too, because they contain more tobacco than cigarettes. Campbell said data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that kids usually start using tobacco products by the age of 11 and can be addicted as young as 14.

“The marketing and the flavors and the cheap price-point—those are the things that will appeal to kids,” Campbell said.

And even though kids may not think that tobacco use will harm them, studies analyzed by the surgeon general found that heart and lung problems can begin as early as adolescence and lead to a lifetime of ill health and nicotine addiction.


Kids At Risk for Nicotine Poisoning

On the horizon is an even more sinister product—dissolvable tobacco products being test-marketed around the country that are not regulated by the FDA.

These smokeless products are designed to get around smoke-free regulations in states such as Wisconsin, which went completely smoke-free in workplaces, restaurants and bars.

These dissolvable tobacco items from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Star Scientific come in the form of pellets, sticks or a film like a Listerine fresh-breath strip. The Camel Orb dissolves in less than 15 minutes, the Camel Sticks, shaped like a twisted toothpick, last less than 30 minutes, and the Camel Strip melts on the tongue in less than three minutes.

These items contain a concentrated amount of un-ionized nicotine and can be very dangerous to kids and teens, according to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the CDC. Young people with low body weight can get nicotine poisoning from ingesting these items and may suffer cramps, nausea, vomiting and even seizures, coma and death, the researchers found.

R.J. Reynolds released a statement refuting criticisms, saying the products are marketed to adults and aren’t meant for kids.

So far, these dissolvable tobacco products haven’t cropped up in Wisconsin. But Busalacchi warned that parents should be aware of them and discourage their kids from trying them.

Campbell encouraged teens and concerned adults to learn more about the dangers of tobacco use by going to tobwis.org.


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