Blair Horner: From one cliff to the next

May 6, 2013

Tobacco companies are an extreme example of how greed trumps morality in America’s marketplace.  Every year roughly 500,000 smokers die from tobacco use and the industry knows it must at least replace those lost customers – plus the ones who successfully quit the addiction.

The industry also knows that nearly 90 percent of those who use tobacco begin before the age of 18 – the legal minimum age for purchasing.  For decades, the tobacco industry has worked to devise ways to get teens to start smoking.  One key way was to offer candy-flavored tobacco products.

Yes, that’s what I said, candy-flavored cigarettes.  The theory was that by making the tobacco experience less disgusting, these young smokers would “graduate” to the more traditional brands.

The strategy was so successful that Congress was forced to act.  In 2009, the U.S. Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act banned the sale of flavored cigarettes, except for menthol, largely because of their wide appeal to young people.

So how did the tobacco industry respond?  By offering more candy flavored tobacco in its non-cigarette products.

A memorandum prepared by US Smokeless Tobacco’s marketing department depicts its “graduation strategy” in a chart.  The memorandum describes:

“Three products of three different tastes and strengths of nicotine:  a) High nicotine, strong tobacco flavor…b) Medium strength of nicotine…using a Happy Days product [Happy Days comes in three flavors “natural,” “sweet” and “mint”]… c) Low nicotine, sweet product [Skoal]…Do we flavor this product with honey, chocolate or vanilla?”

A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, reveals the effects of the tobacco industry's continued efforts to sell other flavored tobacco products, such as cigars and smokeless tobacco.  The study is the first to examine the prevalence of flavored tobacco products following the 2009 ban on flavored cigarettes, and shows that flavored tobacco products remain popular.

Past research has shown that the tobacco industry developed flavored cigarettes in large part to appeal to young people. According to the findings of the new study, 18.5 percent of young adult tobacco users in 2011 reported using flavored tobacco products compared to 11.9 percent using flavored cigarettes in a 2005 study.  The most common flavored products used by young adults in the U.S. include hookahs, pipes, and little cigars and cigarillos – all of which are increasingly growing in popularity among young adults.

If anything, cigars, especially “little cigars,” provide even more egregious examples of this marketing strategy.  Swisher Sweets come in cherry, strawberry, peach and grape flavors.  Captain Black little cigars are sold in “Peach Rum,” “Tahitian Cherry,” and “Madagascar Vanilla” varieties.  And then there’s HBI International, which produces wrappers in more than 30 flavors including Milk Chocolate, Peaches & Cream, Mango, Bubblegum and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.

And the tobacco strategy is working.  A recent report from the New York Health Department found that despite a decline in cigarette smoking among young people, since 2008 there has been an increase in cigar smoking rates and smokeless tobacco use among high schoolers.  The Department estimated that 154,000 high school youth used tobacco products such as cigars, smokeless tobacco, or hookah on one or more days in the past 30 days.

Despite the federal ban on flavored cigarettes, flavored cigars and smokeless tobacco products continue to inappropriately attract new, young, users.  A restriction on the sale of all flavored tobacco is a much-needed step to protect children and to reduce their risk of nicotine addiction and the subsequent lethal effects of tobacco.  New York City has enacted such a restriction, the state should too.

Blair Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division.  His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.

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