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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Clove Encounters: Ron Venturi lights up near the clove cigarette display that will come down if a new anti-smoking bill becomes law.

Where the Flavor Isn't

Eshoo bill would put a stop to flavored cigarettes enjoyed by children and hipsters. Does it go too far?

By Molly Zapp

IT'S NOT really fair for the government to control what we smoke," says Julian Shipp, manager at Mac's Smoke Shop in Palo Alto. "The taxes we pay already are astonishing. I feel like our freedoms are being taken away one by one."

Silicon Valley Congresswoman Anna Eshoo says one fact trumps all others. "Smoking is a killer, and we know that," Eshoo says. "It's just as simple as that; it's just as profound as that."

New tobacco legislation co-sponsored by Eshoo, which gives the FDA sweeping new powers to regulate the tobacco industry, overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives on July 30. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act allows for strict new regulation of tobacco products.

If it is signed into law, cigarette manufacturers will no longer be allowed to label products as "lights" or "ultralights." They must disclose the amount of all additives. Flavored and clove cigarettes would be banned. Any new type of cigarette would have to be given pre-market approval before being sold. And all outdoor tobacco advertising would have to be in black and white.

And lest there remain any lingering confusion about the painful, hideous and premature death that waits to befall smokers, current warning labels could be replaced with graphic images of tumors and mouth sores.

Similar legislation has broad support in the Senate, though it's unclear if it has enough to override a threatened veto from the White House.

"Good or bad aside, government intervention is selective and inconsistent," Shipp says. "Cherry vanilla cigarettes are out, but menthols are allowed. Natural clove additives are banned, but ammonia? A-OK with Uncle Sam."

Shipp says that his keen olfactory senses allow him to smell which tobacco products have ammonia in them. He singles out Marlboro Reds as a notable ammonia offender, and says that he tries to guide customers to purchase additive-free cigarettes. The presence of ammonia in cigarettes would "surprise a fair amount of smokers," Shipp says, and he supports cigarette manufacturers labeling additives.

"As far as regulating what's in cigarettes, I think it's important for consumers to be aware of what they're smoking, but banning flavored cigarettes—that's a little absurd," Shipp says.

Curbing tobacco's appeal to minors is at the heart of the logic behind much of the legislation's stipulations, especially the part that bans flavor additives in cigarettes. Proponents of the legislation reason that clove, spice and fruit-flavored smokes are "gateway cigarettes" that mask the harsh taste of tobacco, making for a kid-killing, deceptively delicious smoke.

"My hope is that it will be most effective with minors," says Eshoo. "We know from all of the research that's been done that once young people start smoking, it becomes a habit, and then an addiction. My hope is that young people will not become addicted."

Shipp doesn't accept the Save-the-Children justification behind the new legislation. He says that Mac's Smoke Shop employees are strict in their refusal to sell to minors, and that when minors (unsuccessfully) attempt to purchase tobacco, they usually try to buy regular cigarettes, not flavored.

"The people who tend to smoke the flavored are in their mid-30s who are out for a drink on the town, who haven't had a cigarette in a week," Shipp says. Few customers he has observed have switched from occasionally smoking flavored cigarettes to habitually smoking regular cigarettes.

A 2005 Centers for Disease Control study of the smoking habits of high schoolers found that while 23 percent of high schoolers smoke regular cigarettes and 14 percent smoked cigars, only about 5 percent smoke flavored or cloves.

But 19-year-old Taylor Walton says that he supports the ban on flavored cigarettes. Walton says that the first cigarettes he smoked when he was 16 were cloves.

"They're filthy," he says. If cloves had not been available to him when he was 16, he says it would have been "way less likely" that he would have started cigarettes at all. Walton then switched to Newports, a menthol cigarette, then to American Spirits. But the all-natural cigarettes are more expensive, so he now smokes Camels, and says that he hopes to quit in the next year or so.

After significant debate, especially within the Congressional Black Caucus, menthol cigarettes were exempted from the flavor ban. Multiple surveys report that about 70 percent of African-American smokers smoke menthols, compared to about 30 percent of white smokers.

Eshoo supports the banning of menthols as well.

"I think by banning all flavors, if that helps keep people away from something that they really like, then so be it," Rep. Eshoo says. "From the politics of it, the flavored cigarettes are more popular with adults then they are with minors. If something doesn't taste good, and it keeps people away from it, then so be it."

Perhaps surprisingly, Philip Morris USA, the largest manufacturer of cigarettes, has put its support behind the legislation.

"Philip Morris pushed it through because it wouldn't hurt business," Ron says. "They don't sell flavored cigarettes." Philip Morris does manufacture menthols. The majority of clove cigarettes are manufactured by Djarum, an Indonesian company. However, even regular cigarettes often have some type of flavor additive, so other tobacco companies may have to change the specific formulas for different cigarette varieties.

Tobacco studies have not shown that light cigarettes are any less harmful than full-bodied cigarettes, and potential consumer misperception that lights are safer led to the banning of the light and ultralight distinctions. A statement issued by RJ Reynolds, who opposes the new tobacco bill, calls for "informed choice by adult consumers" that allows smokers to "switch to a lower-risk product."

Shipp sees cigarettes as having little impact on society at large when smokers smoke within their own homes or designated smoking areas, and that those who do choose to smoke now know the risks.

"Fifty years ago, it was different; they didn't know about the long-term effects," he says.

But tobacco lawsuit–inspired graphic posters of tar-covered lungs plastered in elementary school gymnasiums at least give a clear preview of the dangers of tobacco use, a danger that will not stop every person from smoking.

"Now, there's no doubt that your average smokers knows about lung cancer, emphysema and mouth cancer," Shipp says.smoking."

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