Cigarettes with a kick blaze trail

Beedies: Fad-fascinated young Americans are acquiring a burning desire for the flavored import from India.

June 17, 1999|By Trena Johnson | Trena Johnson,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Baltimore resident Kenneth Merchant, soon to be an engineering student at Morgan State University, doesn't smoke American cigarettes at all. He prefers bidis, a flavored cigarette imported from India, for the extra kick they give. "It's just like cigarettes," he says, "except it's a little stronger."

Bidis, Americanized as "beedies," are 2 inches long, hand-wrapped in a brown leaf called tendu and tied at one end with string.

Although this description may suggest marijuana, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has found that beedies contain no controlled substances. But no one disputes that they are stronger than customary cigarettes and at least as hazardous -- and that consumption, especially among fad-fascinated young Americans, is growing fast.

Mark Cassar owns part of Kretek International, a beedies distributor based in Moorpark, Calif. In a telephone interview, he compared the attraction of beedies to getting the latest popular flavors of coffee or beer. "It's the same thing as when people have microbrews," he says. "Young adults might find them popular -- instead of buying a regular cup of coffee, they buy a cup of mocha."

Shawn Ulizo, director of marketing for Kretek, emphasizes that he does no advertising for beedies but said recent media attention has boosted sales greatly. "The media has just gone crazy on this. Generation Y and up is experimenting. It's a conversation piece. Young people are experimenting."

American beedies -- which come in a variety of flavors, plain, strawberry, mint, chocolate, the list goes on -- cost about $2 to $3 for a pack of 20. Unfiltered, they have twice the nicotine and tar of the average American cigarette, but less tobacco. The U.S. Surgeon General warns that beedies are as dangerous as cigarettes and more addictive because of the higher amount of nicotine.

Loyola High School graduate Dave Byroade, after trying beedies for the first time, describes them as different from ordinary cigarettes: "You don't feel it going down your throat." Mark McNullety, also a recent Loyola graduate, agrees, but echoed the danger: "It's extremely smooth -- I can sense the appeal. I can feel the more nicotine."

In India, bidis are the centuries-old "poor man's cigarettes." About 800 billion are smoked each year in that nation of nearly 1 billion people. (In comparison, America, population 273 million, smokes about 470 billion cigarettes a year.) Bidis sell for a few cents per pack in India. Indian smokers use eight times more bidis than manufactured cigarettes.

The trend is new in America and growing fast. How many beedies are smoked and how fast is consumption growing? There's no official answer: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has no national data on them.

But there is no doubting the evidence in shops where young adults are flocking to them: "They like the flavored kind," says Jason Valiquet, manager of Fader's tobacco store in Towson. Another tobacco shop in Towson, the Other Side, reports a surge in business among young adults since the store began carrying beedies. No one under 18 is allowed to possess beedies.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reclassified beedies as cigarettes instead of cigars five years ago, thus raising the federal tax from about 2 cents per pack to 24 cents.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, nearly 40 percent of beedies are smuggled into the United States to avoid payment of those taxes.

Adding to the concerns about smuggling and nicotine addiction is a social issue: The Boston Herald and the Florida Times-Union have reported that child labor is used to make beedies in India.

John Colledge, program manager in fraud investigations for U.S. Customs, says, "Anything made with forced or bonded labor is not allowed into the country." But he also adds, "We cannot prohibit a product simply because it's made with child labor."

Steve Jones, spokesman for the American Cancer Society in Baltimore, says, "Beedies represent one more harmful tobacco product on the market. The troubling emergence of this insidious product, with [two] times the nicotine of a regular cigarette, affords the American Cancer Society another opportunity to remind everyone, especially young people, of the deadliness of tobacco addiction."

Pub Date: 6/17/99

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