June 24, 2008

Cancer Society Calls for Ban on Flavoured Cigarillos, Favoured By Some Teens

By Sheryl Ubelacker, Health Reporter, THE CANADIAN PRESS

TORONTO - The Canadian Cancer Society is calling for a government ban on flavoured cigarillos after a national youth smoking survey found a significant proportion of teens have at least experimented with the product.

Cigarillos, or little cigars, are sold in flavours that mimic those of candy, fruit or ice cream - drawing in youngsters who might otherwise never try smoking, said Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst for the society.

"They come in very colourful packages and flavours that are very enticing to kids - vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, mint, peach, raspberry and so on," Cunningham said Monday.

"And it's a product category that's simply exploded on the market," he said, noting that Health Canada figures show that unit sales of cigarillos skyrocketed to more than 80 million units in 2006 from just 50,000 units five years earlier.

The 2006-2007 Youth Smoking Survey by the University of Waterloo, released Monday, found that 35 per cent of Grade 10 to 12 students reported having tried "cigars, cigarillos and little cigars."

The survey of 71,000 students in Grades 5 to 12 from across Canada also found that 48 per cent of Grade 10 to 12 students had tried cigarettes and 11 per cent were classified as current smokers. Among students in Grades 5 to 9, 18.5 per cent had tried cigarette smoking and two per cent were current smokers.

Cigars and cigarillos are rolls of tobacco wrapped in tobacco leaf paper and are considered as addictive as cigarettes. Smoking cigars and cigarillos increases the risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, lungs and esophagus.

But Cunningham said cigarillos look anything but dangerous. They often sport packaging that makes them look like crayons or lipstick. As well, they are sold in small packs or individually, making them more affordable for young people than cigarettes sold in minimum packs of 20.

Health warnings on cigarillos are much less prominent than those on cigarette packages and there are no health warnings at all on individually packaged cigarillos, he added.

"We cannot allow the tobacco industry to continue to put on the market these flavoured products, in terms of cigarillos, that could entice many kids who would never start smoking to start."

Some proposed legislation is trying to tackle the issue: in May, a private member's bill in the Nova Scotia legislature called for a ban on flavoured cigarillos, and a federal private member's bill introduced in the House of Commons earlier this month seeks to ban flavoured cigarillos and other tobacco products.

"So there is some momentum on this, recognition that there is a problem out there," Cunningham said.

Steve Manske of the Centre for Behavioural Research and Program Evaluation at the University of Waterloo, who co-ordinated the Health Canada-sponsored survey, said the rate of tobacco use among Canadian youth had been steadily declining for years, but now seems to have flatlined.

The survey found that 21 per cent of young Canadians in Grades 5 to 9, most between the ages of 10 and 14, had tried at least one tobacco product. This result is similar to that reported in the 2004-2005 survey, following a decade-long decline. The original Youth Smoking Survey, conducted in 1994, reported that 52 per cent had tried a tobacco product.

The fact that the youth smoking rate has not continued to fall makes the possibly growing popularity of cigarillos an area of great concern, said Manske, in part because the product appears to be easily obtained.

Despite legislation that curbs the sale of tobacco products to minors, Manske said more than one-third of Grade 10 to 12 students who reported trying cigarillos had purchased them from stores.

And the cost of a single cigarillo - about the same as a cup of coffee - would be affordable for most teens, he said.

"If you're just going to a party and wanting to try one, then it's only a buck-fifty, or in that sort of range."

Manske said researchers don't know why the drop in youth smoking rates has stalled, but it's concerning because tobacco use puts kids at risk "for a lifetime of illness."

"There's something else in their environment that has likely changed. It's just we haven't nailed down exactly what that is."

Cunningham believes one reason there's been a halt in the progress of cutting youth smoking rates even further is because of the availability of contraband tobacco products from some First Nations reserves, which are sold at a fraction of the price set by government.