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Children crusade against sales of bidi cigarettes to their peers.
Sometimes you find them catty-corner from a rack of porn magazines, sometimes stacked behind a dinky plastic partition. They lure those who partake of them with a fragrant combination: the rich aroma of pure tobacco and the fruity appeal of tropical Skittles.
Known as “bidis,” the hand-rolled Indian cigarettes have become the trendy target of anti-tobacco advocates who believe that their sweet, cheap lethality is a threat to children that has been previously overlooked. Bidis have twice as much nicotine and three times as much tar as regular cigarettes, but they’re entirely legal to sell to minors and they cost as little as $1.25 for a pack of 20.
Some bidi brands are herbal, but most consist of flaked tobacco wrapped and baked in sun-dried tendu or bidi leaves from India and then tied with a string. Bidis are packaged in colorful boxes or in traditional paper cones, in flavors such as strawberry, mint, and mango. One of the main importers of the cigarettes, Moorpark, Calif.-based Kretek International, has been in business for 20 years.
Bidis aren’t flying off the shelves in D.C., but, according to Kretek officials, they don’t need to sell in large quantities. In a 1999 interview with the trade magazine Tobacco Outlet Business, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing, Shawn Ulizio, noted that “profits range up to 50 percent on many items….[Shop owners] may sell lower overall volume but it’s at a higher percentage.” In the same interview, Kretek’s vice president of research and development, Mark Cassar, labeled the target audience for bidis “college age consumers” and those who started smoking the cigarettes in college and continued afterward.
A coalition of local health experts, church officials, and teen activists believes that the cigarettes have a target audience that is younger than college-age.The coalition enlisted At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil to introduce an amendment to the city’s smoking laws in February that would snuff out access to bidis for minors. Eight other councilmembers co-sponsored the measure.
Walter R. Talbot Jr., president of the D.C. division of the American Cancer Society, contends that students as young as those in the sixth grade are aware of bidi cigarettes and can obtain them. “You can even purchase them online,” he argues, “but there’s no way a person can tell whether a person is an adult or a child over the Internet.”
Brazil did not return repeated calls from the Washington City Paper over a two-week period for comment on his anti-bidi bill. In fact, he didn’t even show up for a June 6 committee hearing on the legislation. But the target audience for Brazil’s measure has expanded considerably in his absence: Advocates have successfully lobbied for a blanket ban on bidi cigarettes, akin to similar bans in Illinois and West Virginia.
Alpha Estes Brown, founder of the Cause Children Count Coalition, is one of the most vocal proponents of expanding the anti-bidi restrictions from minors to all citizens. He argues that the anti-bidi bill should authorize larger fines for merchants, business-license revocation, and a retroactive tax on past sales of bidi cigarettes.
“Merchants are getting away with selling all forms of cigarettes to minors, and the government hasn’t kept up,” says Brown. The funds collected from bidi back taxes, he says, could be used to finance programs that could collect better statistics on cigarette smoking.
A Kretek spokesperson who declined to be identified by name takes a class-warfare tack in defending his company’s product. He says that bidis should not be treated any differently from regular cigarettes, let alone proscribed more harshly.
“What they’re saying,” the Kretek spokesperson continues, “is, ‘We don’t want cheap cigarettes to be sold in D.C.’ Conversely, it’s OK to sell expensive cigarettes in D.C. But when you take away all of the hype and all of the chatter, it really comes down to an economic matter.”
Politicians and health-policy advocates may have signed on to the anti-bidi effort, but the bill originated as a summer project for teenagers.
The Anti-Smoking Angels are an arm of the Rev. Anthony Evans’ D.C. Black Church Initiative, a nonprofit coalition of churches that promotes prevention education on health and other issues.
Evans says that the anti-bidi effort grew out of city funding obtained by the initiative. “We had a small grant from the Department of Health, and one of the charges for the grant was to publicize the current law that minors cannot purchase cigarettes in the District,” says Evans. “One of the activities last summer was to look at the cigarette-smoking law and see if bidis were includedand we realized that they were not.”
Evans enlisted local attorney Nathaniel Jones to help the Angels learn about legislative efforts. Jones says that the anti-bidi effort sounded like “a good project for the young folks,” and he briefed the group about legal research methods and helped kids draft an amendment to the District’s tobacco laws that included bidis.
“There wasn’t a lot of formality,” recalls Jones. “Just plain language that wasn’t technical.”
Evans says that the plain language of politics had a lot to do with Brazil’s agreeing to sponsor legislation that was rooted in a teen summer project.
“Councilmember Brazil has always been supportive of us,” says Evans. “We told him what we wanted and asked him if he would sign on to it.” Asked if Brazil or other supportive councilmembers balked at the bill, Evans replies, “I’m the head of a clergy, and I represent 800 churches, so that can count.”
Dunbar Senior High School student Kadisha Ottley was introduced to the Anti-Smoking Angels by a friend a year ago, and she has participated in plays for local kids that focus on the risks of smoking. “We go out to schools and inform the students that kids are not [supposed] to buy cigarettes and that bidis are the worst ones,” says Ottley.
Though she doesn’t have much firsthand experience with bidi-smoking youth, Ottley is firm in her beliefs about the evils of the sweet cigarettes. “I really don’t know a lot of people who smoke it, but I’ve heard that it’s the No. 1 threat to young people in D.C.,” she says.
Ottley has heard you can also buy bidis from ice-cream trucks. “I just hope that they do make that law of not selling bidis to underage kids,” she says, “or banning it period and not having bidis anymore.”
Anti-smoking advocates point to the long history of failed tobacco measures in the District, and they remain dubious about the broader anti-bidi bill’s eventual fate. “We have not made much progress with tobacco bills, because of resistance by councilpersons to move the bills out of committee and because of connections to tobacco companies and advertising companies,” observes Talbot.
The anti-bidi bill faces a vote in the Judiciary Committee next month. CP