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.
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.
"I think no one really knows how much gets into the US illegally versus legally," says Greg Conley, director of the Tobacco Control Program at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
A US government official who did not want to be identified says, "We actually saw smuggled bidis from Canada where there has been a smuggling issue for awhile, and we have seen some for the last six or eight months in the States. But overall, it's hard to substantiate."
In three states - Massachusetts, California, and New Jersey - surveys were done in l999 to measure bidi use among teens. In San Francisco, they were sold to minors twice as often as regular cigarettes, and 41 percent of the bidis bought had no tax stamp, meaning they were black-market products. In Massachusetts, a survey of 642 high school students showed that 40 percent had smoked bidis.
Mr. Eriksen, who included questions on bidis for the first time in the 1999 National Youth Tobacco Survey, says about 5 percent of high school students said they smoked bidis in the past month. "Bidi use by teens is much higher than we expected on the survey and is nearly as high as smokeless tobacco," he says. "So that estimated figure [of 78.4 million] sounds a little low to me."
Because bidis contain tobacco, their sale is illegal to minors. But in the teen world, the word quickly spreads as to which stores sell tobacco products to minors. "If one kid buys cigarettes in a store," says Kate Barton, a freshman entering Adolpho Camarillo High School in Camarillo, Calif., "then everyone knows that store. Very few people ask for IDs."
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that a 1997 nationwide compliance check among retailers revealed that children were able to buy cigarettes 25 percent of the time.
In an effort to call attention to the spread of bidis, Kate participated in an organized demonstration in front of the corporate headquarters of Kretek International in Moorpark, Calif. Kretek is a leading importer of flavored bidis.
"We think Kretek caters to underage smokers," Kate says. The company denies the charges, and has a warning on its Web site indicating that it "supports local laws and regulations prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to underage persons."
"I felt proud that we were doing something about bidis," she says, "and we got lots of media attention. The most common reason kids smoke bidis is to fit in with their friends. They think it's trendy and non-mainstream. Smoke them and you're like a trendsetter."
Considerable media attention landed on bidis manufactured in India when "60 Minutes II" aired a show exposing indentured child labor practices at the Mangalore-based Ganesh Beedi Works. Late last year US Customs confiscated Ganesh Beedi products and banned further importation by the company.
"Every time we squeeze cigarettes, something else seems to pop up," says Mr. Conley, referring to bidis.
"We have to work very hard to prevent just regular smoking from being an ingrained habit with teens. There is no silver bullet to this. There has to be a combination of approaches, but the best is to get adults to quit because they are the biggest role model for kids. If we get adults to reduce smoking, we'll see teens follow."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society