Illinois' total bidi cigarette ban has teens primarily in mind

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - There they are in colorful packets of 20 tucked away in little boxes on a bottom shelf in the tiny ''Discount Tobacco'' shop.

''All Bidis 99 cents,'' reads a scrawled sign posted over a rich choice of potent, imported cigarettes that come in almond, cinnamon, clove, root beer, strawberry and vanilla flavors.

It's a bargain price - well-under half their usual $2.29 - for the cigarettes that have the look of marijuana joints and are filled with tobacco flakes, hand-rolled with a greenish-brown leaf, tapered at both ends and tied with a tiny thread.

''We're trying to get rid of them. They don't sell,'' explained a clerk, who declined to give his name. ''In the six months I've been here, I've sold just one.''

Come Jan. 1, he better not sell any more. The sale of bidis (pronounced BEE-deez) in Illinois will be banned, with violators fined $100 to $1,000.

Under the sweeping new law, no one will even be allowed to give away the product that became a 1990's teen fad after being known for centuries in India as ''the poor man's cigarette.''

Illinois becomes one of the first to take on bidis and follows in the footsteps of Chicago, which in the past year became the first city in the nation to ban bidi sales.

''It's been prominent on the West and East coast,'' said the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Catholic priest from Chicago who helped in the fight. ''Our desire was to hit it here before it takes roots.''

Illinois' move comes just months after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the use of tobacco products such as bidis an ''emerging public health problem'' among U.S. youth.

The 1999 U.S. National Youth Tobacco Survey concluded 5 percent of high school and 2.4 percent of middle school students smoke bidis. Some state attorney generals - including Illinois' - also found minors could easily order bidis on the Internet.

''Part of the appeal to youth is it's a seemingly underground product. (They think) 'It looks like a joint, tastes good. My parents don't know what it is. So, wow, is this appealing!''' said Diana Hackbarth, a professor at Loyola University's School of Nursing in Chicago.

Illinois' action came even though - like in other states - the sale of tobacco products to minors is already against the law. But sponsoring lawmakers say the sweeping bidi ban was appropriate.

''It's a deceptive product,'' said Sen. Kathleen Parker, R-Northbrook. ''It something they're claiming is going to help a person stop smoking. Actually, it's more addictive.''

Regulators note than one study has found a bidi produces more than three times the amount of nicotine and more than five times the tar of a typical American cigarette.

The Specialty Tobacco Council has denied that bidis target children or that they are more of a health hazard. And the Tobacco Merchants Association says only 78.4 million bidis - worth under $1 million - were legally sold in the United States last year.

''There's been a lot of scare tactics used against bidis over the last year,'' said Garry Avram, executive director of the Specialty Tobacco Council. ''The market is so infinitesimal and affects so few people. There's not a big enough populace using it to pressure a legislature or enough business to warrant litigation'' contesting a bidi ban.

The Legislature easily passed the ban and Gov. George Ryan signed it last spring.

Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan and his counterparts in 49 other states last year unsuccessfully urged the federal government to ban all bidi imports. Ryan, however, did not back Illinois' bidi ban.

''The attorney general remains committed to reducing youth access to cigarettes, but these things here are cigarettes essentially, and there are certain adult segments of the population who prefer these cigarettes and should have the right to use them,'' Ryan spokesman Dan Curry said. ''He doesn't think these are good products but these are (or have been) lawful products.''


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