The new smokeless tobacco products are brightly colored, smell great and resemble candy—the perfect combination to attract kids, local anti-tobacco advocates say.
With cigarette smoking rates dropping and more laws banning smoking in public places, tobacco companies are coming out with new products to get new customers hooked, health officials say.
Tobacco companies are trying to target people at a young age to make the products seem like candy, said Maria Acevedo, a sophomore at Beloit Memorial and member of Latinos Against Drugs.
“Kids will be like, 'Oh, that's candy,' instead of, 'That's a tobacco product, and it causes cancer,'” she said.
Teens, especially girls, are using candy-flavored cigars that cost anywhere from 89 cents each to a three-pack for $2.87, said Debbie Fischer, director of Youth2Youth of Rock County. The cigars come in flavors such as chocolate, cherry and grape.
“There's a reason they're candy-flavored,” she said.
Fischer, Acevedo and Acevedo's peers in Latinos Against Drugs, part of Youth2Youth's effort, have been educating students and adults to make them aware of “other tobacco products,” or OTPs.
In a recent presentation they gave in Spanish to Latino adults, the students passed around colorful plates showing the comparisons between real candy and the tobacco products marketed with the same flavors and colors.
The products are taxed by weight, not by product type, so they're hardly taxed at all, Fischer said.
The Rock County Health Department detailed the most common types of OTPs:
-- Tobacco sticks, which resemble toothpicks and dissolve within 10 minutes in the mouth. One stick contains three times the nicotine of one cigarette.
-- Orbs, which look like small pellets, or Tic Tacs. They last about 15 minutes. One pellet contains 1 milligram of nicotine, which is the equivalent to one cigarette. A child could die from eating 10 of the pellets, Fischer said.
-- Strips, which are similar to breath mint strips. They take three minutes to dissolve. One strip contains slightly less nicotine than one cigarette.
-- Snus, which are small pouches containing tobacco. Snus is being marketed to smokers to use when they aren't able to smoke cigarettes.
The good news is the orbs, strips and sticks products are not sold in Wisconsin, and Fischer and her students hope to keep it that way. Tobacco companies have piloted the products in only a few states, and Fischer speculated one reason they might not have spread yet is because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is looking at regulations.
“Hopefully if that day ever comes, maybe the awareness would stop it from coming here,” she said.
The pouches are increasing in popularity locally because of smoking bans, the ease of use and the lack of secondhand smoke, Fischer said. She's heard from area dentists who are starting to see some affects from the smokeless products.
According to the 2012 Wisconsin Youth Tobacco Survey, 34.3 percent of high school students surveyed have heard about the pouches, and 14.6 percent have used smokeless tobacco. Also, 5.8 percent reported currently using smokeless tobacco or chew.
Using the products is not a safe alternative to smoking cigarettes, health officials say. Consequences include cancer, tooth loss, gum disease and increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Acevedo guesses that adults see the products, but don't really know how dangerous they can be, she said.
“We can't do it ourselves,” she said. “Teens can't do it themselves, and adults can't do it themselves. We have to join together to actually make an impact and change things.”
A person still must be 18 years old to buy the products, but sometimes clerks don't check IDs, said Nancy Carlos, a senior at Beloit Memorial and a member of the group.
Carlos said she's noticed a decrease in the popularity of smoking in teens, but that the candy products are gaining momentum.
It's the flavor and smell of the candy products that attracts teens, she said.
“Even though they smell different from regular cigarettes … they're still bad,” she said.