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They come in licorice, chocolate, banana, pineapple and other candy-like flavors. They appeal to youths and they are easy to find. Some smokers even mistakenly think they're safer than traditional cigarettes.
Those are the arguments fueling a state and national assault on bidis -- hand-rolled, often-filterless cigarettes available in many California convenience, liquor and tobacco stores, the Contra Costa Times reported.
"The sweet flavoring is aimed at a youth-oriented market," said Sen. Deborah Ortiz, (D-Sacramento), author of a new state law restricting bidi sales. "It's a unique product. ... And it's one area where we can narrow our focus so that fewer young people embark on the habit of smoking."
Bidi distributors counter that they're being treated unfairly, that they don't encourage underage smoking, and that research findings of elevated toxin levels are misleading or exaggerated. "To me, it's unfair trade," Mark Cassar, chief operating officer of Kretek International, which imports more than 500 tobacco products, told the Times. "[Bidis] meet all the requirements that other cigarettes do. Why are they being singled out?"
Gov. Gray Davis recently signed Ortiz's bill limiting the sale of bidis to adult-only businesses, such as tobacco shops. Previously, any store could stock bidis. But selling cigarettes to minors has long been prohibited.
Congress, meanwhile, is considering a nationwide ban on bidis, a move supported by the National Association of Attorneys General. Similar legislation was defeated last year.
Bidi opponents claim the novelty of hand-rolled, flavored cigarettes, coupled with their resemblance to marijuana cigarettes, could spawn a youth fad -- and already has in some cities, the report said.
By keeping bidis out of young shoppers' view, beginning Jan. 1, the bill is meant to discourage children from becoming familiar with the flavored cigarettes and trying to acquire them illegally. Retailers who ignore the bill can be charged with a misdemeanor or sued for up to $2,000 per violation.
Bidi sales currently are banned in two states -- Vermont and Illinois.
Nationwide, about 80 million bidis were sold in 1998 -- representing less than 1 percent of the total U.S. cigarette market, according to the Specialty Tobacco Council, the report said. In California, the percentage of stores selling bidis has nearly tripled since 1997, but remains relatively small, roughly 1 percent of all outlets that stock tobacco products, state surveys show.
Instead of shoving bidis off store shelves, which will have little effect on underage smoking, California should more aggressively enforce its smoking laws and impose stiffer fines on retailers, Cassar said.