SEBRING - Cigarette use is declining in Highlands County, but cigar smoking is rising.
Dr. Barry Hummel knows why: the U.S. government and many states have made smoking painfully expensive: the tax is about $1.36 per pack. New York charges a $4.35 per pack excise tax. It's just the opposite in the tobacco-growing states of Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, where the tax ranges from 17 to 57 cents.
The Florida excise tax on cigarettes is $1.34 per pack, plus a $1 surcharge.
But, the pediatrician added, "We do not have an excise tax on cigars at all."
So cigarette manufacturers stain cigarette paper with brown tobacco juice, said Hummel, a board member of the Tobacco Prevention Network of Florida.
"Now they can call it a cigar," Hummel said. Real cigars are tobacco wrapped in a tobacco leaf. He has lobbied legislators to reconsider brown cigarettes as cigars, but senators and representatives resist because it might be perceived as a tax increase.
That's why cigar use in Highlands County has doubled since 2002, from 9 percent among high schoolers to 19 percent.
When measuring the entire state though, cigar use for high schoolers has decreased from 14 percent in 2006 to 11 percent in 2012.
"And it's still going down," said Hummel, who has seen the data for 2013.
Over the past 15 years, Hummel said, "We've done a better job of educating students about the risk and the marketing tactics that manipulate them into making an impulsive decision."
Because so many adults - read "role models" - have quit smoking, their children haven't started. "Parents who smoke are more likely to have children who smoke," said the American Lung Association.
In a 1999 ALA poll, teens assumed 67 percent of adults and 54 percent of all teens smoked; in reality, 25 percent of adults and 17 percent of all teens were smokers.
Another new tobacco strategy is to appeal directly to young kids with berry, chocolate and green apple flavored cigarettes. "A wide variety of candy and fruit-flavored tobacco products are available in communities throughout Florida, despite overwhelming evidence that these deadly products appeal to youth and can lead to a lifetime of tobacco addiction," said Tobaccofreeflorida.com. "Candy and fruit flavors mask the bad taste of tobacco, making it easier for kids to start using tobacco products. Once they start using one tobacco product, they are more likely to experiment with others."
And that's why Hummel thinks e-cigarettes may be good for adults who are trying to quit smoking, but bad for children who aren't hooked but experiment with e-cig flavors like pina colada and peach schnapps.
"In recent years, the emergence of new flavored tobacco products, presented in colorful and playful packaging and backed by hefty marketing budgets, have parents, teachers, health advocates, physicians, and communities rightly concerned," Tobaccofreeflorida.com said. "In Florida, one in six kids between the ages of 11 and 17 had tried flavored tobacco."
It's a mixed message to kids who have been taught for the past two decades that smoke-free restaurants and campuses are normal, but so are flavored e-cigs and cigars.
On Tuesday, a Florida House panel will hear SB 224 and HB 169, which would ban the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors. The issue has drawn controversy because part of the House bill would bar local governments from passing restrictions on the sale of tobacco products.
"From a youth standpoint," Hummel said, e-cigs "are contributing to the problem. The numbers that came out of the Centers for Disease Control shows nationally the numbers have doubled among middle school students during the last two years. Only 8.7 percent use regular cigarettes, so at some point, those numbers will cross: the use of e-cigarettes will exceed the use of reg cigarettes. It's very much an emerging problem.
"The problem is that they are marketed as safe," Hummel said. "So teens hear the word 'safe,' they hear 'less harmful,' and they don't think there are any consequences. But e-cigarettes could be a game changer. It could be how they'll get addicted."