The Food and Drug Administration banned Tuesday the sale of fruit- and candy-flavored cigarettes in the U.S., hoping to rid the market of products that the agency says make smoking more attractive to children.
While flavored cigarettes make up a tiny fraction of tobacco products sold, the move marks the first major step made by the FDA since it was given the power this year to regulate tobacco products. The next step? The agency will look into whether other flavored tobacco products - including popular menthols - will also be barred from U.S. store shelves.
"Almost 90 percent of adult smokers started smoking as teenagers," Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, the FDA's commissioner, told reporters. "These flavored cigarettes are a gateway for many children and young adults to become regular smokers."
The niche products, sold in flavors such as vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, are mostly made by smaller firms or imported from overseas. The ban also includes the more popular clove cigarettes, which have been illegal in Maryland for almost 20 years.
It is unclear whether small cigars, sold across inner-city Baltimore under brand names such as Black & Mild, would be affected by the ban. Some of those products also have fruit flavors, and the FDA says some products called cigars are actually cigarettes.
Dr. Lawrence R. Deyton, the director of the FDA's new Center for Tobacco Products, pointed to research that found that flavored cigarettes, which take some of the edge off a strong tobacco taste, appeal to young people. He said 17-year-old smokers are three times as likely to use flavored cigarettes as smokers over 25.
"The reason for this [ban] ... is to protect our children from initiating tobacco use," he said.
At Fader's, a tobacco shop in Towson, manager Jim Gray wasn't buying that. About 5 percent of his business was in flavored cigarettes. "Our main customer base was women between the ages of 22 and 50. It wasn't girls who just turned 18 and wanted to try a flavored cigarette."
Gray just learned of the ban in the past two weeks, when he got a letter from the FDA. Customers who could afford to, stocked up, and those who like the vanilla or chocolate smokes were angry.
"They feel like the government is taking away something they enjoy," he said. "They're grown adults. They should be able to decide what's good for them or bad for them. [Officials] use the excuse of doing it for the children to get the laws passed. We're not selling to children."
At The Other Side, another Towson tobacco shop, owner Jason Cerrato said he is still reeling from the new federal tax on roll-your-own tobacco, which added a $2.50 per pouch fee, nearly doubling the price.
"In this economy, they're supposed to be helping small businesses instead of hurting them," he said. "If kids are going to smoke, you're going to tell me that without flavoring, they're not going to? If they want to smoke, they'll buy something else."
The FDA is taking several steps to enforce the ban. Consumers are being asked to report violators, and border officials will be on the lookout for illegal shipments.