Watermelon Cigars? A Call For Higher Taxes On 'Alternative' Tobacco Products Targeting Kids

Download Audio
Executive Director of Tobacco Free Mass, Steve Shestakofsky, at WBUR with a sampling of so-called alternative tobacco products (Nate Goldman for WBUR)
Executive Director of Tobacco Free Mass, Steve Shestakofsky, at WBUR with a sampling of so-called alternative tobacco products (Nate Goldman for WBUR)

If you've been in a convenience store lately, you may have noticed little packages and containers that look like candy but are actually smokeless tobacco. Those products are taxed at a lower rate than cigarettes, and anti-tobacco groups say that's one reason they attract young people.

This week the Massachusetts House is debating an amendment that would close that tax loophole, and anti-tobacco advocates want that new tax revenue to fund a wellness and disease-prevention trust fund proposed in both the House and Senate versions of health care cost control legislation.

WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke about this with the executive director of Tobacco Free Mass, Steve Shestakofsky, who came to our studio with a collection of these lower-priced tobacco products.

Steve Shestakofsky: Let me show you what we have here.

Sacha Pfeiffer: You have a travel case, which apparently has some show-and-tell items.

Alternative tobacco (Nate Goldman for WBUR)
Alternative tobacco (Nate Goldman for WBUR)

Yes, I have a travel case. So these include primarily small flavored cigars, which are very inexpensive, as well as smokeless products. There's a product called Snus, and I'll pull that one out of the kit. And what Snus is — these are dissolvable sachets.

They're like little tea bags shaped like pieces of gum.

Right, and you can put them in your mouth, and they dissolve, and they are tobacco. So what you get from these new products, or products like Ariva, which are tobacco pieces about the size of a Tic Tac.

And those look like medicine, and they look like they're packaged like medicine.

Yeah, they're individually packaged. They dissolve in your mouth, too.

You mentioned flavors. What are you seeing flavored, and in what kinds of flavors?

Well, in terms of cigars, what you see right here, we've got pink berry, we've got wine-flavored, we've got grape, and I've seen chocolate and mango, and here's a cherry-vanilla. What we have are flavors that are clearly designed and aimed at a young audience. And kids have responded to this. But the major reason why kids have responded to these products is a matter of price. When we've raised the taxes on cigarettes in this state — and the cigarette tax is $2.51 in Massachusetts — we've raised the price of cigarettes to the point where kids have recognized that they can get their nicotine a lot more cheaply through other products.

You mentioned this product called Camel Snus. It's spelled S-N-U-S. I've actually seen a lot of these discarded tins on the ground — just trash thrown on the ground. And I happened to go on YouTube last night to see if I could find instructional videos for how these things are used. And what I mostly found was kids, very young people, demonstrating on YouTube how to use it. Here is one of those, and this is by a young man who doesn't mention his age, but he looks like a high schooler.

YouTube video:

Yeah, I got the new Camel Snus. I'm gonna start by putting one in. These new ones, the two new flavors — look how much bigger these is [sic]. They're real easy to swallow. The flavor reminds me of some kind of a herbal tea. Really good. I'm gonna give it a five out of five, definitely. I'm gonna do these in school. Hell yeah.

So he says, 'I'm gonna do these in school.' Is part of your concern that oftentimes adults aren't even aware that kids are using tobacco products when they have these things?

Well, that's right, because tobacco is generally banned in schools. So they shouldn't be using those products at all.

And when they are using them, it looks like they're popping a piece of candy or just chewing a piece of gum?

Or it's just not noticed.

Steve, on the other hand, tobacco companies portray these products as" modified risk" products, meaning you're not inhaling smoke, so there's no risk of lung cancer, and they say that they're actually helpful for people who may want to quit smoking or taper off and can't go cold turkey. Are you concerned about other risks, however?

There are significant risks to using all of these tobacco products, particularly mouth cancers, esophageal cancers and oral diseases, periodontal diseases. Ask your dentist; they are very, very strong proponents for no smoking at all and no use of these smokeless products.

Many of these smokeless tobacco products are taxed at a lower rate than cigars and cigarettes. And this health care cost control bill being debated today by the Massachusetts House would raise the tax on smokeless tobacco products so that they are equal or more equal to cigarettes and cigars. You want that tax raised. Why?

We want that tax raised because youth are very price-sensitive. And because young people are price-sensitive, history shows that they're going to use less of this product. And a number of people who are using these products will end up quitting.

On the other hand, some of these items — I mean, I'm looking at a cigar in your case here that costs $1.19. No matter how much you tax that, is that ever going to become as expensive as a $7.25 pack of cigarettes? And isn't the young person always going to choose the $1 cigar over the $7 cigarettes?

Well, this may become a $2 cigar. The Legislature is right in considering this when we think of the fact that 10 percent of all of our health care dollars are actually spent on dealing with tobacco-related illnesses.

Update as of 7:24 p.m.: During debate Tuesday on the House version of the health care cost control bill, lawmakers decided not to try to close the tax loophole on so-called alternative tobacco products through the bill. Instead, they will continue to try to close that loophole through existing stand-alone legislation sponsored by State Rep. Jonathan Hecht, a Watertown Democrat.

The House did approve an amendment that would put $20 million into a trust fund that would pay for wellness and disease prevention programs. That money would come from a percentage of a one-time assessment levied on hospitals and health insurers.

This program aired on June 5, 2012.


More from WBUR

Listen Live