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Will the FDA Put A Stop to Flavoured Cigar Growth?

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Euromonitor International data and recent academic surveys indicate there is currently major growth in consumption of small, flavoured cigars and cigarillos in the US (26% CAGR value growth between 2009 and 2013).  The US Food and Drug Administration banned flavours other than menthol in cigarettes in the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. One key justification for this was that ‘candy’ flavours were a gateway to young people starting smoking. However, the flavours ban did not extend to cigars, given the lack of FDA oversight of the category, leading to accusations of a legislative loophole. So with the April proposal to extend FDA regulation to small cigars is the loophole likely to be closed? Perhaps, but the same comments have been made about menthol in cigarettes.
According to the Center for Tobacco Surveillance & Evaluation Research at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey in New Brunswick, an annual survey of drug and alcohol use among Americans aged 12 and over, found that young people are smoking fewer cigarettes and more small cigars. The survey found that 8% of men and 2% of women said they had smoked a cigar in the past 30 days, but 11% of people between ages 18 and 25 years old had smoked a cigar - more than any other age group.

This trend was attributed to the popularity of small, flavoured cigars priced to be competitive with cigarettes.  It was also reported that three quarters of cigar smokers smoked a brand that offered flavoured varieties. Flavoured cigars were popular with cigarette smokers, women, African Americans and, in general, people under the age of 35.

Half of all Cigars Smoked are Flavoured

According to Nielsen market scanner data, flavoured cigars have accounted for almost half of all cigar sales from convenience stores in the US since 2011. Between 2008 and 2011, revenue from cigar sales went up by 30%, driven largely by flavoured cigar sales, which increased by 53%. Flavoured cigars increased from 42% of the US cigar market in 2008 to 50% of the cigar market in 2011.  The products, called eco-cigarillos in Europe, since they have the same filters as cigarettes.  The Food and Drug Administration has banned flavours other than menthol in cigarettes as part of the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, as stated above, that restriction does not apply to cigars.

The new research appears to confirm that the rise in small flavoured cigars sales is partly the result of the ban on candy flavoured cigarettes and also that it is primarily to the young that cheap flavoured cigars appeal. The anti-smoking lobby in the US would like the new research to put pressure on the FDA to extend a ban on flavours in cigars, under its proposed new mandate. This may also raise the issue of flavours in smokeless tobacco products which, also, are not banned, and possibly also, candy flavours in e-cigarettes. E-cigarettes and flavours is an interesting issue because, without the addition of flavours, an e-cigarette would be tasteless.  Although research on e-cigarette usage suggests they are overwhelmingly consumed by cigarette smokers and are not a gateway into tobacco for the young there are some anti-smoking groups who wish to see all (tobacco) cigarette legislation also applied to e-cigarettes.

Who Smokes Flavoured Cigars?

So is the small cigar flavours loophole likely to be closed? All smoking legislation has a political dimension, but smoking legislation where flavours are concerned is hyper-political. According to the new research on cigar smokers, 94% of female cigar users smoke flavoured brands, compared with 70% of males. Meanwhile, 95% of 12-17 year olds reported that they smoked a flavoured brand compared to 63% of those aged 35 and older. And in addition,  black cigar smokers preferred flavoured cigars to a greater extent than white and Hispanic smokers.

So will research suggesting growth in the popularity of flavoured cigars among the young lead to the FDA levelling the flavours playing field? The argument is that the same reasons for banning candy flavours in cigarettes should also be applied to flavoured cigars which look like cigarettes.

The Menthol Issue

This may happen but, hanging over the debate is the complex issue of menthol.  Some in the industry argue that the 2009 legislation on flavours was largely cosmetic since candy flavoured cigarettes did not represent a significant part of  cigarette market whereas Newport, a menthol brand, was and is second only to Marlboro in the US cigarette market. Manufacturers of kreteks – clove flavoured cigarettes were particularly aggrieved by being included in the ban since kreteks were not regarded as, in any sense, a ‘candy’ flavour likely to appeal to children.  Kreteks were, however, largely smoked by a particular ethnic group – South East Asian Americans.  The numbers involved, however, were comparatively small. It may be that this political conundrum and the FDA’s possible reluctance to step into this particular minefield may enable candy flavoured cigars to escape the levelling of the legislative playing field.

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