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Trendy, Dangerous “Bidis” Gaining Popularity Among Youth; Tobacco-Free Kids and Senator Harkin React

Tiny smokes pack three to five-times the nicotine punch as cigarettes
August 13, 1999

Washington, DC - Buying bidis doesn’t get much easier than on the Internet. With just a credit card and a computer, a carton of bidis can be bought for under $40 – with no proof of age. Bidis (also spelled “beedies”) are small, flavored, filterless cigarettes made in India that contain more tar and nicotine than regular cigarettes – but less actual tobacco. They consist of shredded tobacco rolled in dried tendu leaves (a broad-leafed plant native to India) and are secured with string. In addition to Strawberry, Cherry and Cinnamon, teens can have their choice of “exotic flavors” – as termed by the Darshan brand – like Black Liquorice, Mandarin Orange and Mango. Many think also that bidis resemble marijuana. While bidis have been imported into the United States for at least 20 years, they seem to have become popular among young people only recently. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) in a letter yesterday to the Food and Drug Administration asked the organization to expand its youth access efforts to control the sale of bidis to minors and to engage in compliance checks of retailers that sell bidis. In addition, Harkin sent a letter to the Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission questioning him on several issues related to bidis including the sale of the product on the Internet and the enforcement of existing regulations. “We strongly believe that these companies are creating flavored bidis to entice children,” said CAMPAIGN FOR TOBACCO-FREE KIDS President Bill Novelli. “It’s not the first time a tobacco company has done this.” In 1993, candy flavoring was added to Skoal Long Cut smokeless tobacco. In industry documents, a former United States Tobacco sales representative said, “Cherry Skoal is for somebody who likes the taste of candy, if you know what I mean.” In addition to being sold on the Internet to underage buyers, bidis may also be easier for kids to purchase in convenience and tobacco stores. A recent study conducted in San Francisco found that bidis were sold to minors without age identification twice as often as regular cigarettes. According to federal product definitions, bidis are considered cigarettes and should be subject to all existing laws and regulations regarding tobacco products. “This means packs of bidis must display the Surgeon General’s Warning,” said Novelli. “Most importantly this means that it is illegal for retailers to sell bidis to anyone under 18. More must be done to stop the sale of bidis to kids,” said Novelli. “We welcome the efforts of Senator Harkin to address the growing problem of bidis.” The San Franciso research project also found that almost 7 out of 10 packs had no health-warning label. “This strongly suggests that bidis have not been rigorously subjected to the relevant health regulations,” said Novelli. Novelli emphasized that bidis are not a “safe” alternative to cigarettes. “The research available on bidis shows that their users run the risk of developing oral and lung cancers, just like that of cigarette smokers,” said Novelli. Unlike most cigarettes smoked by kids, bidis are unfiltered and may, in fact, have more deleterious health effects. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an unfiltered bidi releases three to five times more tar and nicotine than a regular cigarette, despite containing less tobacco. It is difficult to determine the exact number of bidis that are imported into the United States every year, but it appears to be increasing dramatically. Between 1994 and 1995, when bidis were reclassified from “cigar” to “cigarette,” the value amount of cigarette imports from India increased by more than 500 percent, suggesting that bidis make up the bulk of imported Indian cigarettes. Since then, the value amount of cigarette imports from India has continued to rise dramatically, increasing by more than 400 percent between 1995 and 1998. Despite a 1991 Indian Supreme Court ruling that child labor in their tobacco industry should be prohibited, more than 325,000 children work in the bidi industry. According to the Human Rights Watch, children as young as ten roll 1,500 to 2,000 bidis each day, six and a half days a week. Bidi rollers suffer from lung disease from inhaling tobacco dust and have high rates of tuberculosis, asthma, and other lung disorders. The Washington, DC-based CAMPAIGN FOR TOBACCO-FREE KIDS is the largest non-government initiative ever undertaken to decrease youth tobacco use in the United States. Its mandate is to focus the nation’s attention and action on keeping tobacco marketing from seducing children, and making tobacco less accessible to kids.