Flavored Cigarettes Are Gone, but Teenagers Still Smoke. Go Figure.


You may have noticed that you can no longer buy clove cigarettes in the United States. That's because the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which forces tobacco companies to call "light" cigarettes "golds" or "blues" instead, also forbids them to sell cigarettes that have a "characterizing flavor" other than tobacco or menthol. The official aim, as I explained back in 2004, is to protect the youth of America from "candy-flavored cigarettes" that would otherwise lure them into a lifelong tobacco addiction. Which sounds perfectly persuasive to your average "think of the children" knee jerker, except that there is no reason to believe such cigarettes have ever played a significant role in introducing teenagers to smoking. They are not quite as mythical as strawberry-flavored meth; in addition to clove cigarettes (kreteks) from Indonesia, fruit-flavored bidis from India have been sold in the United States, along with short-lived flavored versions of Camel and Kool. But as Michael Siegel has repeatedly pointed out on his tobacco policy blog, flavored cigarettes (with the exception of menthol) have never accounted for more than a negligible part of the underage market.

Siegel notes that politicians and public health officials nevertheless insist that the ban on flavored cigarettes is an important advance in preventing teenagers from smoking. This week Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) cited the elimination of "candy- and fruit-flavored cigarettes, used by the tobacco industry to hook children on tobacco," as a major accomplishment of the tobacco control law, which he introduced in the House. Last fall FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg claimed "flavored cigarettes are a gateway for many children and young adults to become regular smokers." In the same press release, Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services Howard Koh made an even bolder assertion, implying that the ban will stop all underage smoking:

Flavored cigarettes attract and allure kids into lifetime addiction. FDA's ban on these cigarettes will break that cycle for the more than 3,600 young people who start smoking daily.

Siegel, a longtime anti-smoking activist who thinks exempting menthol from the ban shows Congress was not serious, asks Waxman, Hamburg, and Koh to stop making shit up:

It is demonstrably false that flavored cigarettes are a gateway to cigarette smoking, that they contribute significantly to addiction of youths to tobacco, [and] that the tobacco industry uses these flavored cigarettes to hook children…Prior to the implementation of the law…the overall market share of flavored cigarettes among youth smokers was less than 0.1%….The removal of flavored cigarettes from the market by the FDA will have no impact whatsoever on youth smoking.

I challenge Dr. Hamburg, Dr. Koh, and Representative Waxman to name the actual cigarette brands—the brands of candy-flavored cigarettes—that they allege were the source of youth addiction to cigarette smoking just prior to the implementation of the flavored cigarette ban in September 2009 and which are no longer being smoked by large numbers of youths as a result of that ban….If they are unable to name such brands, then clearly their public assertions were false.

Steve Chapman noted the lie underlying the ban on flavored cigarettes in a column last September. In 2008 I asked whether the menthol exemption made Waxman's bill racist.