ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Starting tomorrow, American cigarette manufacturers will no longer be able to make candy, fruit, or spice flavored cigarettes and retailers won't be able to sell them. Shia Levitt has this story on how businesses and smokers are preparing for the change.
Mr. ALI HASSAN(ph) (Cigarette Vendor, Manhattan): They come in cherry, chocolate, vanilla flavor, and cloves. We sell different cloves like menthol, exotic flavors, you got vanilla flavor cloves.
SHIA LEVITT: At Smoke Scene convenience store in midtown Manhattan, manager Ali Hassan pulls down some packages of flavored cigarettes. All products he will no longer be allowed to sell after midnight tonight. For the past couple of weeks, Hassan has been letting his customers know the news.
Mr. HASSAN: Most of the smokers don't know about it, so I more likely tell all my customers that they'll be banned on the 22nd. I have a couple customers that, you know, bought a lot. Some of the others, they decided it's like time for them to quit.
LEVITT: In the month since the new Tobacco Control Act passed, some manufacturers had acted fast to try to hold on to their customers. One strategy: New products like the mini-cigars on the shelf behind Hassan's counter.
Mr. HASSAN: The mini-cigars shall be the replacement to the cigarettes, cloves cigarettes. It's a new product that just came out.
LEVITT: The mini-cigars are packaged almost identically to the clove cigarette packs, but smaller. One store was giving away single smokes from the free sample packs the distributor sent. But the Food and Drug Administration will soon be reviewing the new products to decide whether they are subject to the flavor ban. In the meantime, not all of Hassan's customers will be easy to convert. Desiree Stage(ph) has been smoking clove cigarettes since she was 15.
Ms. DESIREE STAGE: I like the smell of them. And once I actually started smoking them when I got my friends to buy them for me, I liked the taste of them and that was that. I mean, cigarettes taste horrible. These do not taste as horrible. They just don't.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LEVITT: But she doesn't feel the same way about the new clove mini-cigars, which she finds too harsh and irritating. So she says while she may buy a couple extra packs of the cigarettes before tomorrow, she's unlikely to switch to cigars.
Ms. STAGE: I'm in the minority. But I'll probably quit.
LEVITT: Flavored cigarettes make up just a small percentage of convenience store sales and profits, but people who stop in for cigarettes may buy other items as well, like a drink or a snack. And in places like Manhattan, it's hard to see the flavor ban in a vacuum. Smoke shop manager Sami Mohammed(ph) says the flavor ban is just one of many local, state and national restrictions that are hurting his bottom line.
Mr. SAMI MOHAMMED (Smoke Shop Manager): It's destroying us of course. It's just — it's rocking the smoke shops. And is killing us really — banning all flavored cigarettes and as well the increase on taxes.
LEVITT: One small relief for retailers is that menthol-flavored cigarettes are still legal — for now. But the FDA has called for independent study on how to best regulate them. FDA officials see the flavor ban as a symbolic first step in addressing the problem of youth smoking. Principal deputy commissioner Joshua Sharfstein explains.
Mr. JOSHUA SHARFSTEIN (Principal Deputy Commissioner, FDA): It's generally acknowledged that these types of flavors may be more attractive to kids and sort of get them over the hump of the harshness of smoking until sort of the addiction kicks in. So by taking away some of these fruity flavors, it will make cigarettes less appealing to the young.
LEVITT: Many public health advocates are optimistic that the new rules could help reduce smoking rates nationwide, especially among youth. And there are more rules coming. The rest of the act's restrictions won't go into effect until at least next year.
For NPR News, I'm Shia Levitt in New York.
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