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In their never-ending efforts to act "grown-up" and flaunt their independence, many teens — despite all the health warnings — continue to turn to smoking as a way of relieving stress or just relaxing with friends. Along with the popularity of e-cigarettes (or "vaping" as it's commonly called), the past few years have seen a surge in young people smoking tiny cigars with fruit or candy flavors. But aren't these still dangerous?
Nicotine is still nicotine
One of the most difficult habits to kick, nicotine addiction isn't anything to mess around with. "Flavored or not, cigars cause cancer, heart disease, lung disease and many other health problems," Centers for Disease Control (CDC) director Dr. Tom Frieden said in an October 2013 agency news release. "Flavored little cigars appeal to youth and the use of these tobacco products may lead to disfigurement, disability and premature death. We need to take comprehensive steps to reduce all tobacco use for all of our youth."
Regardless of the method of smoking, it still remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the U.S., with an estimated 443,000 deaths each year due to smoking and secondhand smoke, according to CDC data. Health-related issues — including cancer, pulmonary disease and heart disease — have been estimated to cost $193 billion each year in both lost productivity and health care costs.
Sweet flavors appeal to teens
Concerns surround the use of candy and fruit flavors in these cigars, especially since the flavors mask the somewhat unpleasant, bitter taste of tobacco — making it easier for teens to become hooked. Researchers at Portland State University in Oregon compared the chemical components of flavorings and the various levels of them found in candy, Kool-Aid and flavored tobacco. Their research letter was published in the May 7 online edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. They discovered that many of the same flavorings were used in all three products and, surprisingly, some of the highest levels of flavoring were in the tobacco products.
In the letter, the team of researchers said, "The same, familiar, chemical-specific flavor sensory cues that are associated with fruit flavors in popular candy and drink products are being exploited in the engineered designs of flavored tobacco products. What we are seeing is truly candy-flavored tobacco." Which begs the question, are these being manufactured and marketed directly to teens?
Are teens really using these flavored little cigars that much? An October 2013 report from the CDC states that more than two out of every five teens who smokes uses flavored tobacco products. Even more alarming, almost 60 percent of those who smoke flavored little cigars expressed absolutely no interest in quitting — whereas 49 percent of regular cigar smokers think about quitting. Actually, the sale of flavored cigarettes was banned in the U.S. in 2009, yet surprisingly the ban does not apply to the flavored little cigars. The CDC reports that while cigarette smoking overall is declining, cigarette-like cigar smoking tripled from 2000 to 2011.
One of the products examined in the research study was the Swisher Sweets Little Cigar, which is an industry bestseller in the category, according to their company website. But Joe Augustus, spokesman for Swisher, holds to the statement that the small cigars aren't targeted at children. He says that the company doesn't advertise directly to consumers, and that states have laws banning sale to minors already. "Flavored tobacco products have been around since the Indians started flavoring their tobacco," Augustus was quoted as saying in a telephone interview. "We don't hardly do any consumer advertising. I'm not sure how they'd be targeted at kids." Whether or not they are directly influencing teens to purchase them, these little cigars are apparently becoming very popular with the teen crowd, and don't show any signs of falling out of favor.
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