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Smoke and mirrors

Teens are falling for mint-chocolate flavoured, honey-dipped, sugar-tipped baby cigars because they're sweet, they're cheap and they're easy to get

Toronto Sun


Among the Gummi Bears and Snickers bars, lottery tickets and smokes, sit displays brimming with the latest childhood treat.

In brightly lit convenience stores filled with colourful candies and sugary sweets, flavoured cigars are discreetly presented as inexpensive and cool alternatives to cigarettes.

Sometimes they're relegated to the "power wall" of other tobacco products looming behind the cashier. But just as often they hover precariously close to the candy counter, within reach of the pint-sized impulse buyer.

Chocolate and berry flavoured, honey drenched and sugar-tipped, these miniature cigars smell and taste delicious. And health experts worry a whole generation of kids yearning for the forbidden symbols of adulthood may be under the false impression these candied killers in pretty packages with such names as Prime Time, Backwoods and Pinto are less harmful than cigarettes.

Andrew, a 15-year-old Grade 10 student from Oakville swears by the strawberry, raspberry and mint chocolate flavoured Prime Time cigars that he started smoking five months ago. "They look so tasty," he says of the shiny, colourful wrapper.

"They are sold in singles. They are small and they're not expensive," he says. Most products sell for around $1, sometimes less.

What's more, Andrew is convinced he has what it takes to control the addictive nature of nicotine. "To be honest I know they're dangerous but I'm not concerned. I don't inhale," says the teen, who also smokes about a pack of cigarettes a week. He admits he's "probably addicted" but insists that, in time, he'll quit.

"I'm only planning to smoke for one to five years so it's not going to have a huge effect on my life," he says.

Teens smoking cigars — it's a growing concern in the United States, where mainstream media are starting to report on the alarming trend.

In this country it's not clear exactly how many teens are picking up the habit, but here's the deal: They're everywhere and they're not hard to get.

In Canada, cigars are governed by the same laws that control the sale of cigarettes. Andrew, well under the legal age of 19, has to be creative when exercising his purchasing power. Sometimes he's emboldened and simply asks clerks at corner stores, hoping he won't get carded. If that doesn't work he employs the "shoulder tapping" method, asking a stranger to make the purchase for him. A third alternative involves the recruitment of a friend's older sibling.

During a break from school this week we asked two non-smoking teenaged girls, 14 and 17, to try their luck buying both cigarettes and flavoured cigars in 10 different Toronto corner stores. The 17-year-old was successful at three locations and scored two cigar products and a package of cigarettes. The 15-year-old was only successful once for cigarettes and once for cigars.

Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, is incensed that these products are allowed on the market. On its website, her organization notes that cigar smoking is on the rise in Canada, citing figures from a 2000 edition of the trade magazine Tobacco Journal International that showed sales increased by 13 per cent in each of the five previous years to 228 million units in 1999. Most of that business was controlled by the Old Port Cigar Co., which was owned by Imperial Tobacco until it was sold in 2000 to a Danish company "at a time of robust sales," according to the trade magazine Smokeshop. At the time Imperial made five million cigars and 120 million cigarillos.

Callard is concerned that the federal regulatory system allows tobacco companies to "introduce whatever they like" because "there are no conditions required to obtain a licence" to make cigars and worse, "there is no consistency surrounding the use of health warning labels."

André Blais, marketing manager of Old Port Cigar Co., says he is reluctant to talk to mainstream media because Canadian legislation prohibits his company from engaging in any advertising or public relations activities related to the sale of tobacco products. He says he is concerned his comments could be misconstrued as an attempt to promote the company's Pinto cigarillos, which have been on the market for six months.

More importantly, Blais explains that health warnings for the Pinto product, sold as singles, are located on the shipping package, which the end consumer rarely sees.

To its credit, a Backwoods brand of Mild 'n Natural Cigars — honey/berry flavoured — carries a warning: "Where There's Smoke There's Poison" and "Tobacco smoke contains more that 50 cancer-causing agents." A warning printed on the wrapper of a Prime Time chocolate mint flavoured cigarillo acknowledges it may cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

There's no question cigars have been given a younger, trendier image. They have been connected with entertainers such as Jay-Z and sports personalities like Michael Jordan. Jay-Z extolled the virtues of cigars in USA Today: "A cigar gives you an air of invincibility."

While adults have been the target market for cigars, which are usually part of the luxury category that includes fine wines, champagne and single malt scotches, now they are attracting the attention of kids. The flavoured cigar category has expanded from Courvoisier, Kahlua or Amaretto to strawberry, raspberry and chocolate. Sometimes they are sugar-tipped to bevel the sharp tobacco taste.

Health Canada reports that cigar smoking carries all the same risks as cigarette smoking, while a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2000 said smoking one large cigar can expose the smoker to the same amount of nicotine found in a whole pack of cigarettes. And just like cigarettes, cigars cause cancers of the lung and upper digestive tract.

As the tobacco industry struggles to stay alive in the wake of plummeting cigarette sales, it appears to be hanging at least some hope for survival on these tiny tasty cigars.

Tobacco manufacturers and retailers say they do not market these products to underaged consumers. But research by the antismoking lobby reveals the tobacco industry is fully aware its future lies in its ability to hook people when they're young.

Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society, says he doesn't know of any study that supports the connection between flavoured cigarillos and teenagers.

"We don't have data but it's clearly a concern," he says. "Regardless of their intent, they are still attracting underage children to their product. There's no doubt that the tobacco industry on the whole is a declining market. And all new smokers begin in their teens or pre-teens."

Amanda Sandford, research manager for the London-based Action on Smoking and Health, has good reason to mistrust the intentions of the tobacco industry. Her organization published a 1999 brochure, Tobacco Explained, that featured a chapter on marketing to children, a compendium of "notes" lifted from internal documents from industry players.

The documents reveal that tobacco companies have looked at potential customers as young as 5. "As one executive says, `They got lips, we want them,'" the document reads. It was followed up recently with another report called "Trust Us: We're The Tobacco Industry.

While the study deals primarily with advertising and marketing strategies that existed before new laws banned such ads, the study underscores the tobacco industry's dilemma: How to get teens on board, "hooked," without drawing attention to its motives. The documents could have served as a template for the black comedy Thank You For Smoking which spoofs the pro-smoking lobby. The film opened in Toronto last week.

"The tobacco industry has always denied that they targeted children," says Sandford. But as the British brochure reveals, there's no better way to capture the attention of teens than by insisting the product is for adults only.

These are desperate times for the tobacco industry as, each year, legislation hobbles its efforts to increase business.

Cunningham is thrilled with tough new Ontario legislation that comes into effect this May 31. It's all part of the Smoke-Free Ontario Act, which will prohibit the countertop displays of all tobacco products. And it gets tougher. On May 31, 2008, all displays of all tobacco products will be banned. The "power walls" filled with every brand imaginable that stand behind clerks in convenience stores will no longer exist.

The next frontier may be the Internet, but even there manufacturers and retailers insist they are not targeting youth.

The website for Pennsylvania-based Turner Business Services Cigars, the distributor for Cojimar and Prime Time, insists the company abides by the rules but acknowledges there are rogue online tobacco retailers.

"The Internet has become a vast world of retailers who sell cigarillos and other tobacco online without knowing all the regulations or choose not to comply with the laws for tobacco because they feel they will not get caught ... We make every effort to ensure full compliance and disclose that fact to you because we would never want one of our customers to be involved in an underage tobacco investigation. Our business was established in 1999 with a single website and today, over 60 websites strong, we are proud to say that we are here to stay."

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