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Blair Horner: The Battle Over Smoking Continues

Blair Horner
Blair Horner

  New York State – and much of the nation – has made tremendous strides in reducing smoking rates.  In the mid-1960s, nearly half of Americans smoked; today it’s roughly half that nationwide and lower still in New York.

The successes have come as the result of scientific findings that have linked smoking to lung cancer and other health problems.  Those scientific breakthroughs also identified the health risks faced by nonsmokers who were exposed to second hand smoke from tobacco products.

As a result, new laws were passed that dramatically limited smoking in public places, increased the price of cigarettes through tax hikes, limited tobacco companies’ advertising campaigns, and put new programs in place to educate smokers, the public and in particular children about the hazards of smoking.

But that doesn’t mean that the Big Tobacco has given up.  Far from it, they keep thinking up new ways to peddle their deadly products.  Public health supporters must continually monitor the industry and devise new responses to the industry’s work.

Take, for example, the sale of cigars.

Although cigarette smoking has been slowly declining, total consumption of cigars (i.e., large cigars, cigarillos, and small cigars) in the United States has increased dramatically since 1993, reversing a decline in consumption that had persisted for most of the twentieth century.  Between 2000 and 2011, for example, cigar consumption increased by nearly 125 percent while cigarette consumption declined by nearly one third.

While the health risks of cigar smoking are not the same as cigarette smoking, cigar smoke is composed of the same toxic and carcinogenic constituents found in cigarette smoke.  Some cigar smokers inhale, while others may not, but any cigar use increases health risks compared to those who do not use tobacco at all.  Cigar smoking causes cancer, increased risk of heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).  Moreover, many youth and adult users are now smoking cigars, especially smaller ones, with full inhalation, just like cigarettes.

Cigar smoking is the second most common form of tobacco use among youth.  Government surveys have found that more than one in six high school boys currently smoke cigars.  Each day, almost 3,000 kids under 18 years old try cigar smoking for the first time.

In some states, youth cigar smoking equals or surpasses youth cigarette smoking among some populations.  In Montana, 18 percent of high school boys currently smoke cigarettes, but 22 percent smoke cigars.  In Wisconsin, 15 percent of high school boys currently smoke cigarettes, but 20 percent smoke cigars.  Similarly, in Maryland, 12 percent of high school boys currently smoke cigarettes, but 16 percent smoke cigars.  And cigar use among African American high school students increased significantly from 7 percent in 2009 to 12 percent in 2011.

One reason youth cigar smoking rates are high among certain demographics is because cigars are being marketed in a range of kid-attracting flavors, such as candy, fruit and chocolate.  Those government surveys found that the majority of high school cigar smokers use flavored cigars.  In fact, more than one in six high school students in Florida have tried a flavored cigar.  Similarly, in Maryland, almost 80 percent of high school cigar smokers used flavored cigars.

The marketing of candy-flavored cigars – and other tobacco products – is not some accident.  The industry knows exactly what it is doing. 

In one internal document, a tobacco company executive wrote in memo entitled “Youth Cigarette—New concepts,” “It's a well-known fact that teen-agers like sweet products. Honey might be considered.” 

That exec’s strategy has come true.  Cigars like 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 tobacco wrappers in more than 30 flavors including Milk Chocolate, Peaches & Cream, Mango, Bubblegum and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.

In New York, state lawmakers have introduced legislation to prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products.  That’s one law New York needs on its books.

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.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of this station or its management.