Scientists report that the flavoured "little cigars" popular among American teens are essentially "candy-flavoured tobacco."
The finding could be important to US health officials, who are concerned that those sweet flavours mask the bitter taste of tobacco, and may lure young people into a highly addictive habit that carries great health risks.
In an analysis, published as a research letter in the online issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers from Portland State University in Oregon compared the chemical flavourings, and levels of those flavourings, in candy, Kool-Aid and flavoured tobacco products.
Flavour sensory cues
The investigators found there was a lot of overlap in the kinds of flavourings used in all three products, and that some of the tobacco products had much higher levels of flavourings than the candies or Kool-Aid did.
"The same, familiar, chemical-specific flavour sensory cues that are associated with fruit flavours in popular candy and drink products are being exploited in the engineered designs of flavoured tobacco products," the researchers wrote in their letter. "What we are seeing is truly candy-flavoured tobacco."
More than two out of every five teen smokers already use these flavoured products, according to an report from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. And nearly 60% of those smoking these little cigars have no desire to quit, compared to 49% of other cigar smokers, the CDC noted.
Although the sale of flavoured cigarettes has been banned in the United States since 2009, tobacco companies have sidestepped the ban by producing these little cigars, which weigh slightly more than cigarettes and so avoid regulation. Cigars are not currently regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration.
When the CDC report was first released back in October, agency officials warned of the health dangers inherent in these products.
Steps to reduce tobacco use
"Flavoured or not, cigars cause cancer, heart disease, lung disease and many other health problems. Flavoured little cigars appeal to youth and the use of these tobacco products may lead to disfigurement, disability and premature death," CDC director Dr Tom Frieden said in an agency news release at the time. "We need to take comprehensive steps to reduce all tobacco use for all of our youth."
Read: Court weighs graphic warnings on cigarettes
Another CDC official put it this way:
"Many little cigars bear a remarkable resemblance to cigarettes. In fact, some youth who are smoking cigarettes may be smoking flavoured little cigars that they've mistaken for cigarettes," said Dr Tim McAfee, director of the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health. "The concern it raises for us is because little cigars are so similar to cigarettes, this represents a loophole in the FDA's ban on flavoured cigarettes."
Little cigars have become more popular in recent years, according to the CDC. Sales increased 240% from 1997 to 2007, with flavoured brands making up almost 80% of the cigar market.
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