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Flavors attract young smokers

by SABRINA TAVERNISE New York Times News Service on August 18, 2013 1:40 AM

BALTIMORE — At Everest Greenish Grocery, a brightly lit store on a faded corner of this city, nothing is more popular than a chocolate-flavored little cigar. They are displayed just above the Hershey bars along with their colorful cigarillo cousins — white grape, strawberry, pineapple and Da Bomb Blueberry. And they were completely sold out by 9 one recent evening, snapped up by young people dropping by for a snack or stopping in during a night of bar hopping.

“Sorry, no more chocolate,” the night clerk, Qudrad Bari, apologetically told a young woman holding a fruit drink.

In 2009, Congress passed a landmark law intended to eliminate an important gateway to smoking for young people by banning virtually all the flavors in cigarettes that advocates said tempted them. Health experts predicted that the change would lead to deep reductions in youth smoking. But the law was silent on flavors in cigars and a number of other tobacco products, instead giving the Food and Drug Administration broad discretion to decide whether to regulate them.

Four years later, the agency has yet to assert that authority. And a rainbow of cheap flavored cigars and cigarillos, including some that look like cigarettes, line the shelves of convenience stores and gas stations, often right next to the candy. FDA officials say they intend to regulate cigars and other tobacco products, but they do not say how or when. Smoking opponents contend that the agency’s delay is threatening recent progress in reducing smoking among young people.

Cigarette sales are down by a third over the past decade, according to federal data, but critics of the agency say the gains are being offset by the rise of cheaper alternatives like cigars, whose sales have doubled over the same period and whose flavored varieties are smoked overwhelmingly by young people.

The FDA is now wrestling with how to exercise its authority over an array of other tobacco products. “The giant has finally awoken and hopefully will do its job,” said Ron Bernstein, the chief executive of Liggett Vector Brands, a cigarette producer that is worried about unfair competition from cigar makers and others.

Cigar producers say they are bracing for FDA action. But they question a flavor ban, pointing out that the FDA has yet to prohibit the most common flavor, menthol, in cigarettes and that chewing tobacco still comes in flavors.

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