Tobacco firms target youth market with flavored products

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Tobacco companies have introduced a flurry of flavored small cigars packaged like candy, a trend that grew after Congress banned most flavored cigarettes in 2009.Most days before classes start at LEP Charter High School, several students can be spotted hanging out smoking next to the Plaid Pantry a half-block away.

Though all the LEP students interviewed Friday say they prefer cigarettes, most have tried the new generation of small, flavored cigars being marketed to young smokers.

It’s cheaper to buy a small cigar than a whole pack of cigarettes, they say. And the cigars are more fun for blowing smoke tricks and come in handy for rolling large marijuana joints.

“If I don’t have enough for a pack, and I really want some nicotine, then I’ll buy one,” says one of the girls.

“We cut them open, and we put weed inside them,” says one of the boys.

“You mix tobacco and weed and it gets you higher,” explains one girl.

As cigarette smoking across the United States has dropped to its lowest level since the 1930s, tobacco companies have introduced a slew of flavored cigars and other products — much of it since Congress barred all but menthol flavor in cigarettes in 2009.

A new survey of eighth- and 11th-graders in Multnomah County found one out of six has tried the new flavored cigars or flavored chewing tobacco. One in 10 smokes a hookah — a water pipe typically filled with flavored tobacco.

“It’s not really an accident that flavored tobacco packaging looks like candy,” says Adelle Adams, who works on health policy and communications for Multnomah County. “When you think about it, who is really buying a 99-cent strawberry- or chocolate-flavored cigar or cigarillo?”

The Multnomah County Health Department is launching an educational campaign next month to warn teens and parents of the dangers from smoking flavored tobacco products. Health experts fear they’ve become a gateway drug to get millions more teens hooked on nicotine. In contrast to cigarettes, flavored cigars are largely unregulated, and they’re less harsh to inhale than regular cigarettes.

State surveys show the number of Oregon teens smoking cigars is getting close to the number who smoke cigarettes. Preliminary results from the state’s 2013 survey shows 9.4 percent of 11th-graders currently smoke cigarettes and 7.9 percent currently smoke cigars, says Dr. Bruce Gutelius, deputy state epidemiologist for the Oregon Public Health Division.

Nimble industry

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE  - A 16-year-old Benson High School student catches a smoke while walking to school last Thursday. New data show there are nearly as many 11th-graders in Oregon who smoke cigars as cigarettes. The tobacco industry has proved nimble about changing its products to lure new smokers, says Daniel Morris, a former state epidemiologist from Portland.

Cigars are taxed at far lower rates than cigarettes under federal and state law — the only legal distinction is that cigars use some part of a tobacco leaf in the brown wrapper, Morris says.

So tobacco companies started making little cigars the same size of cigarettes, to exploit the tax advantages.

Congress closed that loophole in 2009, he says, but then tobacco companies found they could add a wee bit of weight to those small cigars and qualify for the lower tax rate. Tobacco companies used a clay additive derived from kitty litter to raise the weight, says Thomas Carr, national policy director for the American Lung Association.

Concerned by the proliferation of flavored tobacco products geared to young smokers, Morris co-authored a study, published last month, analyzing 8,426 different tobacco products sold online.

The authors found only 3 percent of classic hand-rolled, premium cigar varieties came with flavors, but 52 percent of the cigarette-sized cigar varieties were flavored, plus 44 percent of the machine-made larger cigars. Among shisha tobacco products used in hookahs, 86 percent were flavored.

Sweet deals

Flavored cigars and chew now occupy a large space on the shelves of some convenience stores. At the 7-Eleven on Northeast 82nd Avenue down the street from Madison High School, a two-pack of Swisher Sweets tropical fusion sells for $2.09; three Phillies strawberry cigars go for $2.79; and a pack of two ZigZag mango cigarillos sells for $1.39. Out front, the store is advertising Marlboro cigarettes for $4.83 a pack.

Plaid Pantry saw a small uptick in flavored cigar sales after Congress banned flavored cigarettes in 2009, but sales have mostly been flat since then, says Jonathan Polonsky, executive vice president of the Beaverton-based convenience store chain. “We stock it because it’s out in the marketplace and there are some customers that do want it,” Polonsky says. But Plaid Pantry wouldn’t put up any protest if the FDA decides to ban the products, he says.(Image is Clickable Link) Multnomah County Health 'Sweet Deceit' Posters

Click here to view Multnomah County Health 'Sweet Deceit' Posters

Plaid Pantry “cards” every customer buying alcohol and tobacco who appears to be under the age of 30, he says, and it’s proud of its record.

But the overall record among Multnomah County retailers isn’t so good. The most recent sting here found 22 percent of the targeted retailers sold tobacco products to under-age decoys, Gutelius says.

Pressure on regulators

Last week, a coalition of national health organizations sent a letter to President Obama urging him to prod the Food and Drug Administration to start regulating the new generation of tobacco products, including little cigars and e-cigarettes. Congress gave the FDA authority to start regulating the new tobacco products four years ago.

Tired of waiting, New York City and Providence, Rhode Island, have enacted their own restrictions at the local level.

There’s some pressure on Multnomah County to follow suit, since it’s tough to pass anti-tobacco bills in the Oregon Legislature given the political clout and immense campaign cash of the tobacco industry.

“While we wait for the FDA to act, the lung association would support local efforts by cities and counties to restrict the sale of flavored tobacco products to protect our kids and young adults,” says Colleen Hermann-Franzen, advocacy and communications manager for the American Lung Association of Oregon. “There are no federal or state laws that prevent local jurisdictions from doing so.”

Multnomah County, the local authority here for public health, isn’t considering that right now, Adams says.

First the county wants to study the problem and do some public education. Starting next month, the county will roll out a series of posters around the theme “Sweet Deceit,” borrowed from a similar campaign in Providence. The county also is preparing a series of fact sheets and interactive computer games.

Public health campaigns focus on youths and young adults because nearly everyone starts smoking by the time they turn 26, and when they do, Gutelius says, it can become a lifelong addiction.

The latest survey found that many youths are naive about the risks of alternative forms of tobacco.

Among eighth- and 11th-graders in Multnomah County, for example, 32 percent think using a hookah is less harmful than smoking cigarettes. “Flavored tobacco products are just as addictive,” Adams says. “One standard hookah session is the equivalent of smoking 100 cigarettes.”

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