Federal health officials say flavored tobacco products are luring an alarming number of underage smokers.
The warning comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its first study measuring the number of American youth using flavored ‘little cigars’ and flavored cigarettes. More than 42 percent of middle and high school smokers reported they have used either product, according to the study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
"What's at stake here is another generation of kids who may face a lifetime of addiction to tobacco products," said CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden.
The CDC study used data from the 2011 National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS), an anonymous pencil and paper questionnaire of students in grades six through 12.
When asked, "Are you seriously thinking about quitting the use of all tobacco?" nearly 60 percent of respondents using flavored little cigars indicated they had no intention to stop. For those using unflavored little cigars, the figure was slightly less than 50 percent.
Although tobacco companies insist their products are marketed to smokers of legal age, public health officials say added flavors -- such as chocolate, strawberry and grape -- appeal to children and teens.
Such concerns led the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban the sale of most flavored cigarettes in 2009. However, the ban did not affect menthol cigarettes or flavored cigars.
Little cigars look like cigarettes and carry the same toxins and carcinogens. However, their wrappers contain at least some tobacco, preventing them from being categorized as cigarettes, which face more regulation than cigars. Some manufacturers have increased the weight of little cigars to qualify for the lower tax rates of conventional cigars.
"Flavored little cigars exploit a loophole and exploit our kids," Frieden said. "We need to take comprehensive action to reduce the availability of these products to our kids, to protect the next generation."
The minimum legal age to buy tobacco products is 18 in most states. However, many underage smokers skirt the rules by shopping at stores that fail to check for identification or by paying older friends to purchase the products for them. According to the Friedan, the way tobacco companies package and market little cigars makes them all the more attractive to minors.
"You can buy them in one, two or five packs. So, they're more accessible to kids," Frieden said. "And because of the flavors, they're very appealing to kids. It's frankly disgraceful that the industry is using this to get another generation of our kids hooked on tobacco."
According to federal health officials, the FDA is assessing whether a ban on flavored little cigars could withstand legal challenges by the tobacco industry. Regulators may also consider minimum package sizes to boost prices.
Although the CDC's study is the first to look at the prevalence of flavored little cigar use among youth, federal tax data suggested that while cigarette consumption decreased by nearly 33 percent from 2000 to 2011, consumption of cigars and other non-cigarette smoking tobacco products increased more than 123 percent. And according to an earlier CDC study, youth have higher rates of cigar use than adults.
Jonathan Serrie joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in April 2009 and currently serves as a correspondent based in the Atlanta bureau.