Tobacco Companies Target Black Teens With Candy-Flavored Cigars

(Bloomberg) -- Brightly colored packages of flavored cigars line the shelves behind bullet-proof glass at the Benning Market & Dollar Plus corner store in Northeast Washington, D.C.

Mixed in with the cigar display is a box of electronic hookahs in flavors like watermelon and mango. The hookahs are manager Mohammad Omer's attempt to get in on the e-cigarette craze. Barely any have sold.

But each day he sells about 50 Black & Mild cigars, a brand of small cigars made by Marlboro maker Altria that look a lot like cigarettes. They come in flavors with names like Jazz and Blues and are sold as single sticks or packs of two, rather than cartons,  for a buck or two. Omer is quick to add he doesn’t sell to minors. Still, lots of kids across the country manage to get their hands on these and similar smokes, and they’re especially popular with black teens.

“E-cigarettes do well in Northwest,” Omer said, with a flick of his hand upwards, to signal the wealthier, whiter part of Washington, D.C. His shop serves a far less affluent neighborhood that is predominantly African American.

Tobacco Companies Target Black Teens With Candy-Flavored Cigars

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has launched a high-profile campaign against flavored e-cigarettes that are all the rage in suburban, often white, schools. In December, the surgeon general issued an advisory with tips for parents and teachers to combat what the government has termed an epidemic of youth vaping. But lost amid the e-cig furor, another killer that's been around a lot longer has gotten scant attention: flavored small cigars, also known as cigarillos, a favored source of nicotine for black teens, according to recent report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

E-cigarettes have become "the next boogeyman," said, Cristine Delnevo, director of the Center for Tobacco Studies at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. But “when we’re talking about e-cigarettes, what are we not talking about?”

Some 3 million teens vape, according to the CDC. Their use of e-cigs accounts for a big chunk of the industry, which Wells Fargo puts at $2.5 billion. Teen vaping, a relatively new market, has been soaring, jumping 78 percent in just the year from 2017 to 2018, according to the FDA. But the even bigger $3 billion cigar market popular among black teens is also growing.

“If you want to protect kids, if you want to protect black kids, then you have to address little cigars,” said Delmonte Jefferson, executive director of the National African-American Tobacco Prevention Network.

A campaign the group runs against little cigars, reads “Same gun, different bullet.” The ad explains that little cigars are inhaled unlike so-called premium cigars used at “all-white gentlemen's clubs” and just one cigar can contain as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.

 Tobacco giant Altria's Middleton products, including the highly popular Black & Mild brand, and Swisher cigars, are among the most popular small cigar brands, according to Wells Fargo analyst Bonnie Herzog. Both include flavors; John Middleton's Black & Mild cigars include flavors such as cream and apple, according to its website. Swisher Sweets cigars and cigarillos include mango, blueberry, peach and tropical fusion varieties. 

Tobacco Companies Target Black Teens With Candy-Flavored Cigars

“We strongly believe kids shouldn’t use any tobacco products and take a number of steps to prevent kids from getting access to all tobacco products,” said David Sutton, a spokesman for Altria Group Inc.   The company , for instance, requires  retailers that sell its products to undergo training to prevent sales to minors and it supports efforts to raise the legal age of purchase to 21 for all tobacco products.  

The government and anti-vaping forces have already prompted e-cigarette maker Juul, which sold a 35 percent stake to Altria for $12.8 billion in December, to close its Instagram account and otherwise take steps to limit advertising popular with teens.

In contrast, the Instagram page for Swisher Sweets cigarillos from closely held Swisher International Inc. is awash in images of trendy, young, African-Americans smoking the product along with shots of recording artists Gucci Mane and Machine Gun Kelly, with whom the company  cross-promotes products and concerts.  Swisher declined to comment.

“It’s wild if you look at the Instagram page. It's so clear who their targeted audience is,”  said Daniel Giovenco, assistant professor of sociomedical sciences whose research focuses on tobacco.

A young black man shopping in Benning Market said he smokes flavored cigars even though he's heard e-cigarettes are better for him.

“That's what I rolled with. That's what I know,” said the 26-year-old  who goes by the name Jke.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said last week in an interview that within weeks he’ll issue a policy no longer allowing some flavored cigars to be sold without marketing clearance from the agency, pushing up a 2021 deadline that now exists for such applications. He’s  also  seeking  an eventual  ban on flavors in all cigars.

His comment follows one earlier this month in which Gottlieb said he'll soon propose restricting sales of most types of flavored e-cigarettes to specialized vaping stores and online retailers who verify a purchaser’s age.

“We're certainly concerned about the flavored cigar products and those being targeted to kids,” Gottlieb said. “This has been on our minds a long time.”

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