Mar. 1 2013
WASHINGTON, DC – How low can the tobacco industry go? Thanks to one U.S. tobacco company, some Americans are now smoking kitty litter.
Bloomberg News reported today that Cheyenne International's "heavy weight" cigars – which look like cigarettes, but weigh more – have a filter containing sepiolite, a clay material used in kitty litter, waste treatment and industrial cleaners. Scientists who examined the filter for Bloomberg determined it was made of sepiolite.
Why would a tobacco company add kitty litter to cigars? According to the Bloomberg report, it is part of a strategy by some cigar manufacturers to increase the weight of their cigars to evade higher tax rates charged on smaller cigars and cigarettes and to continue selling candy and fruit- flavored tobacco products to kids despite Congress' ban on flavored cigarettes. These schemes have undermined efforts to reduce smoking and helped manufacturers avoid more than a $1 billion in taxes since federal tobacco taxes were increased in 2009.
Whatever the reason, it is appalling that a tobacco company can secretly add kitty litter to cigars. Who knows what smokers of these cigars are exposed to when they inhale particles from kitty litter? And who knows what else has been added to these cigars without our knowledge? Certainly not the smokers themselves or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which currently regulates some tobacco products, but not cigars. Until cigars are regulated, manufacturers will remain free to add anything they want to their products without telling consumers or any government agency and without regard for the impact on health.
While kitty litter in cigars sounds like a bad joke, it points to a serious need to close the regulatory and tax loopholes that tobacco companies have exploited to market cheap, sweet-flavored cigars that appeal to kids and undermine efforts to reduce smoking. The FDA must move forward in regulating all tobacco products, including cigars, and Congress must reject legislation that would exempt some cigars from FDA oversight.
In addition, Congress should approve legislation introduced by U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) to increase federal tax rates on all tobacco products to the same rate as cigarettes, which would prevent tobacco companies from manipulating products to qualify for lower rates.
These actions would close two harmful loopholes in current law:
Under the landmark 2009 tobacco regulation law, the FDA currently regulates cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco and smokeless tobacco, but not cigars. The law authorizes the FDA to extend its jurisdiction to all tobacco products, including cigars. The FDA in December 2010 announced plans to do so, but it has yet to act. In the meantime, tobacco companies have circumvented a ban on candy and fruit-flavored cigarettes by marketing similarly-flavored, cheap cigars that look and are smoked just like cigarettes. Cheyenne, whose slogan is "why pay more for what you're looking for," markets cigarette-like cigars in flavors like wild cherry, grape, peach, vanilla and "Xotic" berry.
Another 2009 law increased the federal cigarette tax to $1.01 per pack and equalized the tax rate on small cigars and roll-your-own tobacco to cigarettes. However, larger cigars and other tobacco products were taxed at much lower rates, spawning widespread tax avoidance schemes. Because the distinction between small and large cigars is based on weight, some cigar manufacturers made their small cigars slightly heavier to qualify for the low tax rate on large cigars. This keeps these cigars cheap and appealing to price-sensitive kids. According to the Bloomberg report, 12 companies either switched to or increased production of large cigars in the year following the 2009 federal tobacco tax increase.
These actions show the lengths to which tobacco companies will go to manipulate their products and evade regulations and taxes aimed at reducing smoking. The FDA must regulate all tobacco products, and taxes must be equalized on all tobacco products. No tobacco product should be exempt from these important measures to prevent our kids from smoking and reduce tobacco's terrible toll on our country.