Two-fifths of middle and high school smokers in the U.S. have used cigars and cigarettes manufactured to taste like fruit or candy, according to the first government study into the popularity of such products among adolescents.
Published Tuesday in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that about 1 in 30 of the sixth-to-12th-graders interviewed said they smoke compact sweet-flavored cigars, with the proportion increasing for high school seniors to nearly 1 in 12.
The results of the survey — based on data from the 2011 National Youth Tobacco Survey of 19,000 students — have led to claims that the tobacco industry is trying to lure young smokers into taking up the habit.
Since 2009, the U.S. government has banned cigarettes with candy, fruit and clove flavoring, though it continues to allow menthol flavoring. But there is no restriction on sales of cigars with such flavorings except in Maine, Maryland, New York City and Providence, R.I.
The sale of cigarettes and cigars to those under 18 is illegal, but according to an earlier CDC report, about 16 percent of high school students were smokers in 2011.
Health officials say sweet flavoring can mask the harsh taste of tobacco and make smoking more palatable.
"The so-called small cigars look like cigarettes, addict as much as cigarettes, and they kill like cigarettes," said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.
Tobacco companies have said they oppose smoking by those under age 18. But the marketing of flavored cigars suggests firms are trying to hook minors, anti-smoking activists have said.
"This study indicates that, despite a federal ban on candy- and fruit-flavored cigarettes, tobacco companies continue to lure kids with cheap, sweet-flavored cigars and menthol cigarettes," read a statement from Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "The findings underscore the urgent need for the Food and Drug Administration to take strong additional action to protect our kids from tobacco addiction."
Sales of flavored cigars have boomed in the last 12 years, from 6 billion to more than 13 billion annually, according to calculations by his group.
The CDC survey also asked about menthol-flavored cigarettes. When those were included, of the 6 percent of teenage respondents who admitted to smoking, just over 40 percent said they were using flavored tobacco products.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press