Children look forward to this time of year because of the traditional candies, cookies and other sweets. Unfortunately, the flavors kids love are sometimes used to attract them to something sinister: tobacco.
Documents released during lawsuits against cigarette companies reveal a deliberate strategy to market tobacco to youth. Flavors are used to lure nonsmoking kids and young adults, with the assumption they will later “graduate” to non-flavored products. Industry memos show companies researched the appeal of sweet flavors to youth, including “borrowing” data on flavors from Life Savers candy. On the witness stand in 1998, one tobacco executive characterized the industry by saying, “If you are really and truly not going to sell to children, you are going to be out of business in 30 years.”
This practice continues today. In 2009, the federal government banned flavor additives other than menthol in cigarettes, but increasingly, cheap single cigars are sold in candy flavors, including chocolate, grape, strawberry and others. Smokeless tobacco products also use flavors – as do e-cigarettes, which are sold in an endless array of options; flavors seen in Minnesota include Bubble Gum, Sour Patch and Hawaiian Punch.
Across the country, communities are taking steps to protect kids from flavored tobacco products. In Minnesota, both Minneapolis and St. Paul have considered legislation limiting flavored tobacco sales to tobacco shops and other places where kids can’t enter. This past summer, Minneapolis passed such a policy, which will take effect on January 1. The St. Paul City Council is still debating its own proposal, with a final vote scheduled for January 6. Both policies also raise the minimum price of cigars.
“Most adults are surprised there’s such a thing as a banana cigar,” said Jeanne Weigum, a community advocate who has spearheaded work on this issue in the Twin Cities, “but teenagers aren’t. The flavored products that aren’t even on adults’ radar screens are favorites with young people.”
Research shows almost 90 percent of addicted adult smokers began using tobacco as teenagers, and while teen cigarette smoking in Minnesota is down, use of other tobacco products like cigars and e-cigarettes is way up. And the correlation between flavorings and youth smoking is strong: nationwide, 42 percent of students who smoke use flavored products.
“The federal government did half the job when they banned these flavors from cigarettes,” said Weigum. “It’s up to local communities to finish it.”
Often, flavored tobacco products are packaged in colorful wrappers similar to those used for candy.