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Selling candy to a baby?
By Jon Brodkin / Daily News Tribune
Monday, January 17, 2005

Joe Camel is out. Kauai Kolada and Winter Warm Toffee are in.

Seven years after R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. pulled ads featuring its cigarette-smoking cartoon camel, anti-smoking activists say the company and other tobacco manufacturers have found a new and troubling way to encourage kids to smoke. They make cigarettes taste like candy.

With new flavors like Twista Lime, Midnight Berry, Mocha Taboo, Winter MochaMint and "Mintrigue," usually sold in colorful packages that appeal to children, tobacco companies are recruiting a new generation of smokers and future cancer victims, their critics say.

Legislation to ban flavored cigarettes nationwide has failed, but a bill filed in Massachusetts would make it the first state to take candy-flavored cigarettes off the shelves.

"The concern is this is the new cartoon character for the tobacco industry, a way to lure children and kids into (smoking)," said state Rep. Peter Koutoujian, a Waltham Democrat who co-chairs the Health Care Committee and filed the bill to ban flavored cigarettes.

Koutoujian and others charge that candy-like cigarettes violate the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with the states, which prohibits marketing to children. But tobacco companies say their new brands are intended solely for adults who already smoke.

"These products are designed for, tested with and marketed to adults who choose to smoke," said David Howard, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds in Winston-Salem, N.C., which makes about a quarter of the nation's cigarettes. "We don't believe it's a violation of the Master Settlement Agreement in any way because these products are intended for adults."

Even if tobacco companies don't intend kids to smoke the new types of cigarettes, research shows that is just what is happening. And local high schoolers don't believe the tobacco companies' claim they don't want underage kids to light up.

"They're flavored. Obviously they're going to attract little kids, because adults, if they're already addicted to it, they're not going to care what it tastes like," said Daniel Gonzalez, a 10th-grader at Marlborough High School. "The majority of people will start smoking under the age of 19, and usually around 12 to 15 years old. If they're going to make it flavored, it's all the more reason to have it."

Michelle Geoffroy, a junior at Marlborough High, agreed.

"When you have berry-flavored cigarettes, it's quite clearly targeted toward young children," she said. "Lollipops are flavored like that, candy is flavored like that, so it's definitely aimed toward younger kids."

Gary Giovino, director of the Tobacco Control Research Program at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., said he conducted a nationwide survey of 1,600 youths that showed younger tobacco users are the most likely to try flavored cigarettes.

The research, which has not yet been published, showed that 24 percent of 16- and 17-year-old smokers had flavored cigarettes in the month prior to the survey. Seventeen percent of 18- and 19-year-old smokers had tried them, compared with just 8 percent of smokers 20 to 25.

Another survey of 300 adults indicated that 9 percent of smokers age 25 to 44 had tried flavored cigarettes, and only 4 percent of smokers 45 and older had done so.

"It tells me that there's an age gradient, and suggests to me the companies that make these products are influencing kids' choices, including underage kids," Giovini said.

It didn't take a national survey to convince James DeCecca that longtime smokers are unlikely to drop their Camels or Marlboros for cigarettes that taste like mint or mocha. DeCecca sells tobacco for a living as operations chief at Framingham's Discount Tobacco Warehouse.

"I think it's targeted to younger (smokers)," he said. "Most of the old people stick to the brands they know."

Koutoujian's bill would ban cigarettes with added flavors other than menthol, which has been popular for years. The legislation lists examples of ingredients to be banned, including strawberry, grape, pineapple, cinnamon, cocoa, clove, cherry, licorice, chocolate and coffee.

The state Department of Public Health said an ongoing survey of stores that sell tobacco shows that candy-flavored cigarettes are most common in urban areas, and that flavored cigars are even more widespread than cigarettes.

Locally, it's easier to find a pack of Marlboros than something like Kool's Midnight Berry or Camel's Dark Mints. But they are out there, especially in some gas stations and convenience stores.

"I've never seen as many offerings as I have recently," Koutoujian said. "You can tell it's really picking up steam."

Even as flavored cigarettes catch on with youth, the state has drastically scaled back funding for tobacco control and prevention in the past few years, another development some say could increase youth smoking.

Cigarettes that taste like candy make the jobs of local health officials even more difficult, said Paul Mazzuchelli, director of Milford's Board of Health.

"Local boards of health or enforcement agencies are working at an uphill battle trying to enforce the regulations and minimize the exposure of cigarettes to youth," he said. "Now we're having cigarette companies coming up with cigarettes that taste like candy and fruit...it's just crazy."

R.J. Reynolds, which last year merged with Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., maker of the Kool "Smooth Fusions" series, began selling flavored cigarettes in 2000, Howard said.

State tobacco control officials were aware that flavored cigarettes, such as ones containing cloves, had been around for years. But most were manufactured by minor companies until recently, said Eileen Sullivan, director of the DPH's Tobacco Control Program.

State officials became concerned last year, when they noticed an upsurge in flavored cigarettes produced by major companies like R.J. Reynolds, Sullivan said.

Howard described the new offerings as specialty blends "for that special occasion," and part of a trend toward many kinds of flavored products. Some of them, like the Kool "Smooth Fusions" series, which includes Caribbean Chill and Midnight Berry, were released only for limited times, he said. Others, like Camel's roster of flavored cigarettes, are sold year-round.

"There is growing consumer demand for flavored products, and you're seeing that in numerous things: alcohols, liquors, beers, malt liquors, coffees," Howard said.

R.J. Reynolds refused to release sales figures for flavored cigarettes to the Daily News. Anti-tobacco groups have also been unable to obtain sales figures.

In May, DPH Commissioner Christine Ferguson sent letters to R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Kretek U.S.A. Inc., asking them to stop selling candy-flavored cigarettes in Massachusetts. She also wrote to the National Association of Attorneys General asking them to investigate whether candy-like cigarettes violate the settlement between the states and tobacco companies.

R.J. Reynolds, which merged with Brown & Williamson soon after Ferguson's letters, refused to stop selling the products in the state. Kretek, in a letter responding to Ferguson's request, said its subsidiary, Quintin International, had discontinued its flavored Stars cigarette brand in 2003. But Kretek continues to sell its Sweet Dreams brand, which includes mint, vanilla and chocolate mocha cigarettes.

The company Philip Morris is not selling any candy-like cigarettes, because it is "trying to play the good guys these days," said Danny McGoldrick, director of research at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Last year, the U.S. Senate passed legislation to ban candy-flavored cigarettes and give the FDA authority to regulate the tobacco industry, but it didn't come to a vote in the House due largely to opposition from R.J. Reynolds, which had made large campaign contributions to key congressmen, McGoldrick said.

McGoldrick said Massachusetts could take a significant step by becoming the first state to ban flavored cigarettes, but said action on a national level is necessary.

"The FDA doesn't regulate cigarettes," McGoldrick said. "This (promotion of flavored cigarettes) is more evidence that these people haven't changed, that they need to be regulated."
 


 

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