According to a study of New Jersey middle- and high-schoolers, flavored Asian cigarettes, even worse than regular ones, are gaining popularity among minority youth. The exotic cigarettes from India and Southeast Asia, called “bidis,” are manufactured of tobacco wrapped in a leaf and tied with a string. For the U.S. market, cherry, root beer, vanilla, or other aromas are added.
After sampling the New Jersey young people, Mary Hrywna, M.P.H., and colleagues found that about 34 percent of high school kids and 12 percent of middle school students used any kind of tobacco. But, 9 percent of high school and 5 percent of the middle-schoolers said they used “bidis”.
Black high school students were more likely to smoke “bidis” than white students. In middle school, black and Hispanic students were more than twice as likely as whites to use them.
Bidis’ candy-like taste and a street reputation as “natural” products lead youth, especially minorities, to consider them safer than ordinary cigarettes.
The study showed young people who believed that “bidis” were safer were more likely to use them, as were users of other tobacco products.
But “bidis” deliver more nicotine than usual cigarettes, increasing the likelihood of addiction and raising the risk of cancers of the mouth, lungs, throat, stomach, esophagus and liver, say the researchers.
Because enforcement of laws governing tobacco sales to minors concentrates on cigarettes, products like snuff or “bidis” are easier to buy. Other researchers have discovered that “bidis” are often sold without tax stamps, suggesting they are imported illegally and thus can be sold more cheaply than usual tobacco products.
A complete approach to youth tobacco prevention and cessation campaigns should address other tobacco products as well as cigarettes. Those approaches should also pay attention to groups like black youth, who use “bidis”, cigarettes and cigars about equally.
Future study should try to understand just why young people are so attracted to “bidis”. Tobacco control efforts must also combat the illusion that they are not as bad as regular cigarettes. Public health messages aimed at youth must dispel the dangerous myth that other tobacco products like “bidis” and cigars are safer than usual cigarettes.