Snuffing out bidis - fruit- and candy-flavored cigarettes
These Indian imports can become the 'training wheel' cigarettes for youngsters.
In a downtown area of Boston where street kids and runaways hang out, Jason looks self-conscious puffing on a cigarette. A girl standing next to him says she has smoked "bidis," the small, crude, hand-rolled cigarettes made in India and sold cheap in the United States.Skip to next paragraph
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When asked, she is unsure if she knows any of the flavors added to bidis (pronounced bee-dees), allegedly to make them appeal to teen smokers. "Licorice?" she responds.
Licorice - along with strawberry, chocolate, mango, wild cherry, grape, cinnamon, and lemon-lime - have been added to bidis. And their new popularity among urban teens - most believing bidis are a "natural" product, therefore harmless - brings nothing but a sour response from concerned health officials, politicians, and antismoking advocates.
Actually more lethal than regular cigarettes, exotic and unfiltered bidis are sold in flashy packages and can contain up to three times the nicotine and nearly five times the tar of regular cigarettes. One critic says bidis are "training wheel" cigarettes for kids as young as 11 and 12.
Just as regular cigarettes are under attack in American culture as never before, bidis have been the target of plenty of public outrage. Alarmed over the possible spread of bidi use among teens and preteens, the State of Illinois recently banned their sale. Seventeen states also called for a ban on the "predatory" online sales of bidis by importers to children and teens. And Arizona has forbidden the sale or distribution of bidis.
In February, a bill was introduced in the US House of Representatives to prohibit the import of bidis.
In Oregon five kids from age 8 to 15, cooperating in a sting operation, ordered bidis through the Internet and over the phone. Delivery was by priority mail to their front doors, no questions asked.
"Bidis are like the ultimate harm-delivery device," says Michael Eriksen, director of the Office on Smoking and Health for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. "Because of the way they are manufactured, you have to puff more frequently and pull harder to keep them lit," he says. "They are exotic, candy flavored, cost less, and look like joints, too; so they hit on a lot of cylinders that appeal to kids."
Bidis started appearing in US urban areas 10 to 15 years ago. Billions are sold in India, where they are known as the poor man's cigarette. They are made in villages by children working as long as 6-1/2 days a week for 9 to 30 cents a day.
Bidis are hand-rolled with low-grade tobacco and wrapped in tendu or temburni leaves from forest plants. Oblong in shape, the cigarettes sell in the US for $2 to $4 a pack in tobacco stores, ethnic grocery stores, convenience stores, and at newsstands. In New York, black-market bidis can sell for $1 a pack or less.
How extensively bidis have penetrated the teen world beyond urban centers is not clear. The Tobacco Merchant's Association (TMA) estimates that 78.4 million bidis - worth a little under $1 million came into the US legally last year.
"There was a lot of concern about bidis," says Darryl Jayson, an economist with TMA, "even though the amount of bidis was significantly minute compared to the US market, estimated to have sold 435 billion regular cigarettes in 1999."
But some health officials suggest - based on surveys of teen smokers and the relatively low visibility of the product in retail outlets - many bidis may be flowing into the US illegally.