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As part of its routine monitoring of emerging tobacco products, “Trinkets & trash: artifacts of the tobacco epidemic”, a collection of current and historic tobacco marketing (www.trinketsandtrash.org), recently identified a new tobacco product called Voodoo cigarillos. They are exclusively manufactured in India for the US based Kretek International, a specialty tobacco distributor whose exclusive product line includes Djarum clove cigarettes, Darshan bidis, and Dreams multi-coloured and flavoured cocktail cigarettes.1 The Voodoo cigarillos we obtained were flavoured and, as with bidis, consisted of tobacco flakes wrapped in a leaf tied with a small string. Aside from a slightly larger and more uniform cylindrical shape, Voodoo cigarillos appear to be nearly identical to bidis (fig 1). Only the name on the package would identify it as a cigarillo. US federal regulations define a cigar as any roll of tobacco wrapped in leaf tobacco or in any substance containing tobacco.2 Voodoo cigarillos appear to be wrapped in tendu leaf, which do not naturally contain tobacco.
So we ask, is this new product a cigarillo or a bidi with new packaging? Federal regulations define a cigarette as any roll of tobacco wrapped in paper or in any substance not containing tobacco.3 The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms previously concluded the bidi wrapper did not contain tobacco and, therefore, bidis were subject to the federal cigarette tax.4
The distinction between a cigarillo and a cigarette has important legal and financial implications. Since the wrapper of a cigarillo contains tobacco, cigarillos are taxed at the same rate as small cigars. In 2002, the US federal tax rate for small cigars was 4 cents per pack of 20, while the rate for cigarettes was 39 cents per pack of 20.5 While all 50 states impose a tax on cigarettes, only 45 states impose a tax on cigars,6 which are lower than their cigarette tax.7 If Voodoo cigarillos are taxed at the rate of cigars, the lower federal and state taxes mean a higher profit margin for the merchant and/or lower prices for consumers.
In addition to tax differences, labelling the Voodoo product as a cigarillo has important consequences for their regulation. Several states have expanded their definition of tobacco products to include bidis, making sales to minors illegal. Illinois, Vermont, and West Virginia banned the sale of bidis completely.8 More recently, California passed a bill prohibiting the sale, distribution or importation of bidis except by businesses that prohibit minors, such as bars and casinos.9 Also, federal legislation to halt the importation of bidis into the USA was introduced in 2001.8 By being sold as a cigar product, Voodoo cigarillos would get around the ban on bidi sales in some states.
This new product emerges at a time when bidi sales are vulnerable to increased regulation at the state, and possibly the federal level, as well as higher cigarette excise taxes in 19 states in 2002.7 The Voodoo cigarillo may be a clever way for the tobacco industry to circumvent the regulations and restrictions imposed on bidis. Voodoo cigarillos should be reliably tested to determine if manufacturers and vendors are in compliance with federal and state laws.