These days, the District’s Department of Health is calling around town in search of heads of households to complete its “Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System” questionnaire. Just about all of the questions posed to the man or woman of the house are standard health-survey stuff. For example: “Have you ever been told by a doctor that you have diabetes?” or “How many of your permanent teeth have been removed because of tooth decay or gum disease?” Then, deep into the survey, the questioner pops this oddball: “A bidi is a flavored cigarette from India. Have you ever smoked a bidi, even one or two puffs?”
That’s a strange inquiry for the ranking folks in any domicile. Bidis—hand-rolled cigarettes that come in mango, chocolate, and mint, among other sweet flavors—have long been the puffing province of urban youth. A 1999 study, for instance, found that of 642 teenagers in Boston, 40 percent reported having smoked a bidi. Somewhere between chemistry class and their first apartment, though, most folks tend to bag bidis in favor of common cigarettes or fresh air.
But D.C. health wonks just want to be sure. After all, says Health Department spokesperson Leila Abrar, bidi smokers often don’t consider the product harmful, despite its high tar levels. So the Health Department added the bidi question to this year’s survey “to determine the use of bidis among adults in the city.”