Given the well-known health hazards associated with smoking, it should come as no surprise that most people who take up the habit do so at an early age. About 90 percent of smokers start before 18, and a significant number of those begin lighting up for the first time at 13 or under. That's obviously too young to make informed decisions about a potentially lethal, lifelong habit.
That's why the Food and Drug Administration's first act as a regulator of tobacco was a good one: banning sweet, fruit- and candy-flavored cigarettes. Because they mask the harsh taste of tobacco, these products have been particularly attractive to underage smokers, serving as a gateway into a lifetime of dependence. Even smokers who eventually manage to quit as adults puff away for an average of 24 years before kicking the habit. By then the damage - to heart, lungs and other bodily organs - is usually done, and often it's irreversible.
While we welcome the FDA's action in forcing flavored cigarettes off the shelves, however, it's curious that the agency exempted menthol cigarettes from the ban - a decision based, no doubt, on the fact that menthols are vastly more popular with smokers of all ages than the strawberry, chocolate or vanilla varieties that are subject to the order. In many poor neighborhoods in Baltimore and across the country, for example, mentholated cigarettes are the biggest-selling brands, especially among African-Americans, who already lag in overall health and access to health care.
FDA officials said they're reviewing the impact of menthols, and they shouldn't hesitate to put them on the banned list as well if they determine those cigarettes also have an effect on luring impressionable youngsters into the tobacco habit. Furthermore, many adults addicted to menthols might be more moved to quit smoking altogether if that class of cigarettes were no longer available, which should give the FDA an extra incentive to consider banning them.
Meanwhile, federal, state and local officials should also be looking at ways to keep other gateways to addiction out of youngsters' reach. Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's push to restrict the sales of "alcopops" - sugary alcoholic beverages that are now as widely available as beer - met an inexcusable veto from Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2008. Although the governor has subsequently come around on the issue, the legislature has remained unable to enact restrictions. That should be a priority when the General Assembly returns.
Similarly, Baltimore and state officials have long struggled to restrict the single sales of so-called "little cigars" or cigarillos, products that are taxed and sold as if they were premium cigars instead of the glorified cigarettes they actually are. (The industry defines cigars and cigarillos as smokables wrapped in tobacco, whereas cigarettes are wrapped in paper. But both pose health hazards comparable to cigarettes.)
Mayor Sheila Dixon was able to enact regulations requiring vendors to sell "little cigars" in packs of five or more - an effort aimed at making them less accessible to kids attracted by their low price. But the change that would really matter - taxing them like cigarettes - has gotten nowhere in Annapolis. Lawmakers should take heart from the FDA's ruling on flavored cigarettes and try again next year. For while opponents of such restrictions may be right that adults should be able to make their own decisions about smoking (even decisions that are bad for them), that argument fails when it comes to products that, intentionally or not, are calibrated to lure vulnerable youngsters into a lifetime of addiction.