Brightly colored packages of flavored cigars line the shelves behind bullet-proof glass at the Benning Market & Dollar Plus corner store in Northeast Washington, D.C.
Mixed in with the cigar display is a box of electronic hookahs in flavors like watermelon and mango. The hookahs are manager Mohammad Omer’s attempt to get in on the e-cigarette craze. Barely any have sold.
But each day he sells about 50 Black & Mild cigars, a brand of small cigars made by Marlboro maker Altria that look a lot like cigarettes. They come in flavors with names like Jazz and Blues and are sold as single sticks or packs of two, rather than cartons, for a buck or two. Omer is quick to add he doesn’t sell to minors. Still, lots of kids across the country manage to get their hands on these and similar smokes, and they’re especially popular with black teens.
“E-cigarettes do well in Northwest,” Omer said, with a flick of his hand upwards, to signal the wealthier, whiter part of Washington, D.C. His shop serves a far less affluent neighborhood that is predominantly African American.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has launched a high-profile campaign against flavored e-cigarettes that are all the rage in suburban, often white, schools. In December, the surgeon general issued an advisory with tips for parents and teachers to combat what the government has termed an epidemic of youth vaping. But lost amid the e-cig furor, another killer that’s been around a lot longer has gotten scant attention: flavored small cigars, also known as cigarillos, a favored source of nicotine for black teens, according to recent report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
E-cigarettes have become “the next boogeyman,” said, Cristine Delnevo, director of the Center for Tobacco Studies at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. But “when we’re talking about e-cigarettes, what are we not talking about?”
Some 3 million teens vape, according to the CDC. Their use of e-cigs accounts for a big chunk of the industry, which Wells Fargo puts at $2.5 billion. Teen vaping, a relatively new market, has been soaring, jumping 78 percent in just the year from 2017 to 2018, according to the FDA. But the even bigger $3 billion cigar market popular among black teens is also growing.
“If you want to protect kids, if you want to protect black kids, then you have to address little cigars,” said Delmonte Jefferson, executive director of the National African-American Tobacco Prevention Network.
A campaign the group runs against little cigars, reads “Same gun, different bullet.” The ad explains that little cigars are inhaled unlike so-called premium cigars used at “all-white gentlemen’s clubs” and just one cigar can contain as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.
Tobacco giant Altria’s Middleton products, including the highly popular Black & Mild brand, and Swisher cigars, are among the most popular small cigar brands, according to Wells Fargo analyst Bonnie Herzog. Both include flavors; John Middleton’s Black & Mild cigars include flavors such as cream and apple, according to its website. Swisher Sweets cigars and cigarillos include mango, blueberry, peach and tropical fusion varieties.