"Little cigars" that resemble cigarettes and boast flavors like candy apple or chocolate are increasing in popularity among teenagers, many of whom might be deceived into thinking they are safer or less addictive than cigarettes, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Little cigar use is so popular, some forty percent of US middle schoolers say they have tried them, and they are boosting the overall rate of teens who smoke, alarming medical experts and public health officials alike. More from NBC News:
Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the new data "disturbing."
"Flavored little cigars are basically a deception," Frieden says. "They're marketed like cigarettes, they look like cigarettes, but they're not taxed or regulated like cigarettes. And they're increasing the number of kids who smoke."
A little cigar looks almost exactly like a cigarette: It's the same size and shape, but instead of being wrapped in white paper, it's wrapped in brown paper that contains some tobacco leaf. Many little cigars have a filter, like a cigarette, according to the American Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to prevent teen smoking.
"What makes a cigar a cigar is that it has some tobacco in the paper. Little cigars -- there's just enough tobacco in that paper to make them cigars," says Erika Sward, assistant vice president for national advocacy at the American Lung Association. "They really are cigarettes in cigar clothing."
Not that cigars are healthy. Little cigars – and large cigars and cigarillos (a longer, slimmer version of the classic large cigar) – contain the same harmful and addictive compounds as cigarettes. They can cause lung, oral, laryngeal and esophageal cancers and they increase the smoker's risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The only upside of a cigar is the way they are usually smoked: Cigar smokers tend to take shallower puffs instead of deep inhales. But some research has shown people tend to smoke little cigars just like they'd smoke cigarettes, by inhaling deeply, which can exacerbate the tobacco's health risks.
But because little cigars are technically not cigarettes, they are taxed far less than cigarettes, making them that much more appealing to teenagers, because "kids are especially price-sensitive," Sward says. A pack of little cigars can cost less than half as much as a pack of cigarettes, experts say.
Image: Little cigars and cigarettes, via American Legacy Foundation