In all flavors, cigars attracting young smokers

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BALTIMORE -- At Everest Greenish Grocery, a brightly lit store on a faded corner of this city, nothing is more popular than chocolate-flavored little cigars.

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.

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 gasoline 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.

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. Loose tobacco and cigars expanded to 10 percent of all tobacco sold in the United States in 2011, up from just 3 percent in 2000, federal data show.

"The 20th century was the cigarette century, and we worked very hard to address that," said Gregory Connolly, the director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Now the 21st century is about multiple tobacco products. They're cheap. They're flavored. And some of them you can use anywhere."

The FDA is now wrestling with how to exercise its authority over an array of other tobacco products. In recent weeks, for example, it sent warning letters to several companies that it says are disguising roll-your-own tobacco as pipe tobacco, a practice that industry analysts say has become a common way to avoid federal taxes and FDA regulation.

Mitchell Zeller, 55, a public interest lawyer who became the director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products this spring, acknowledged in an interview that the emergence of new tobacco products meant a new look was needed.

"What we've seen in the past 10 years is this remarkable transformation of the marketplace," Mr. Zeller said. "There are products being sold today -- unregulated products -- that literally did not exist 10 years ago."

As for the criticism that the agency has been slow to act, Mr. Zeller said, "Message received."

"We shouldn't need 40 years of study to figure out that chocolate- and grape-flavored cigars are being smoked by young people," said Matthew Myers, the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Traditional handmade cigars were seen as a luxury for older men, but much of the recent growth has been in products sold in convenience stores to low-income customers. Flavored cigars now represent more than half of all convenience store and gas station cigar sales, up nearly 40 percent since 2008, according to Nielsen market data analyzed by Cristine Delnevo, a tobacco researcher at Rutgers University.

Nationally, about 1 in 6 18- to 24-year-olds smoke cigars, federal research shows, compared with only 2 percent of people over 65. More than half of the younger users smoke flavored cigars, with the highest rates among the poorest and least educated.

Cigar producers say they are bracing for FDA action, even as sales have flattened in the last few years, dampened by new taxes. 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.

"We continue to ask the question, 'What's the rationale?' " said Joe Augustus, a spokesman for Swisher International, a cigar producer.

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