Smoking can burn a hole in your pocket, but how big of a hole may depend on the color of the cigarette.
The cost of smoking has become exorbitant, even when not adding in health care-related costs. The average retail price of a pack of cigarettes in Indiana is $7.25, according to the Indiana Department of Revenue.
The hefty price tag is making many of those who crave nicotine turn to a cheaper source: little cigars or brown cigarettes, sometimes referred to cigarillos or mini cigars.
Even though just as harmful, brown cigarettes are not taxed at the same rate as regular cigarettes. A pack of 20 costs just over $4, taxes included.
Because of language and definition technicalities, brown cigarettes or cigars fall into the category of other tobacco products, which is everything except regular cigarettes, said John Minnich, manager of the downtown Riegel’s cigar and pipe shop in Fort Wayne.
The Food and Drug Administration requires that cigarettes be sold in packs of at least 20, and it’s illegal to sell loosies, or single cigarettes out of a package. But the FDA does not regulate cigars, which are also exempt from federal advertising restrictions that apply to cigarettes. In addition, cigar manufacturers are not required by law to report the amount of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide in each one.
Some states and agencies are pushing to revise tobacco tax codes and definitions so that cigars fall under the advertising and taxing rules of the FDA, hoping the resulting higher prices would be a deterrent.
Indiana is not among those states.
I do not remember this issue ever coming before us, said State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, who has served in the Indiana General Assembly since 1982, and is chairman of the Indiana House Standing Committee on Public Health.
Brown is one of the representatives the Indiana Cancer Consortium plans to approach about addressing the issue in the upcoming session, said Sara Edgerton, co-chair of the consortium and CEO of Community Cancer Care of Indiana.
Charlie is right – there has not been an appropriate push, mostly because the report and findings are fairly new, Edgerton said.
The goal of the consortium during the next legislative session is to identify a lead person or persons to address the issue, she said.
A cigarette is defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau as any roll of tobacco wrapped in paper or in any substance not containing tobacco, according to the recent Brown Cigarette Report from the Little Red Door Cancer Agency and the Indiana Cancer Consortium.
On the other hand, brown cigarettes or cigarillos are wrapped in paper containing small amounts of tobacco, which gives them a brown color similar to a cigar, and which puts them in the lesser-regulated and lesser-taxed category of other tobacco products, the report said.
According to the report, teens and young adults are much more likely than adults 25 years and older to smoke brown cigarettes. To compound the problem, many manufacturers now offer cigarillos infused with vanilla, strawberry, grape and other enticing flavors. Those cheap, flavored cigars are popular with the younger set.
If cigars were redefined and regulated like regular cigarettes, manufacturers would most likely not be allowed to add any type of flavoring, Edgerton said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5.4 percent of adults and 12.6 percent of all students in grades 9 through 12 said they were current cigar users in 2012.
About 1 in 30 middle and high school kids smokes the flavored cigarillos, the CDC reported.
Cigar use among high school boys (16.7 percent) was about double that of high school girls (8.4 percent) and similar to cigarette use among high school boys (16.3 percent), the report said.
During 2011-2012, cigar use increased significantly among non-Hispanic black high school students to 16.7 percent, more than doubling the 2009 estimate, according to the report.
Despite the cheap price tag, Riegel’s has not experienced a sudden increase in business when it comes to the small cigars, Minnich said.
Sales of the small cigars or brown cigarettes at Riegel’s has been steady for about two years, but there’s been no noticeable increase in business, he said.
In the absence of regulation, the tobacco industry has aggressively marketed brown cigarettes as a low-cost alternative to regular cigarettes. As a result, Indiana has seen an increase in the sale and consumption of such products, the report said.
Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., with smoking-related illnesses killing more people every year than AIDS, alcohol, illegal drugs, auto accidents, homicides and suicides combined. On average, smokers lose 13 to 14 years of life because of smoking, according to the consortium.
While Indiana’s comprehensive tobacco control program has been successful in lowering smoking rates among youths in Indiana, the growing use of brown cigarettes threatens to reverse these gains, the report said.
The size of the product determines the heat, which determines the carcinogens, Edgerton said. The more heat, the more carcinogens. And the big cigars don’t heat up like the smaller brown cigarettes.
Edgerton thinks many people are unaware of the dangers of brown cigarettes. One local health official agrees.
This is a big issue because I don’t think most people think of them as being dangerous, said Dr. Deborah McMahan, Allen County health commissioner. They are the same as cigarettes in terms of risks.
McMahan thinks the FDA should rethink the definition of tobacco products in general and tax them all accordingly.
I think they came up with a ruling when all there was to worry about was the big stogie (regular) cigars not the popular, flavored brown cigarettes of today, she said.
Times and tobacco products have changed, and the sweet cigarillos that are easy to buy and cheaper than regular cigarettes are proof of that, she said.
We close one door and the (manufacturers) find a way to open another – I get that, but at least tax them the same way, she said.