Objective At least four varieties of little filtered cigars (LFCs) violate the US prohibition on flavoured cigarettes other than menthol. This study characterises the sales of prohibited products and other LFCs by flavour category and pack size, as well as the price of LFCs relative to cigarettes.
Methods Using retail sales data for 2016, we computed the sales volume in dollars and equivalent units and the percentage of total sales by flavour and pack size for the USA by region and state. Paired t-tests compared the prices for LFCs and cigarettes sold in same-sized packs and cartons.
Results LFC sales totalled 24 033 equivalent units per 100 000 persons in 2016. Flavoured LFC varieties accounted for almost half (47.5%) of the total sales. LFCs were sold in 12 different pack sizes, but 79.7% of sales were packs of 20. The price of 20-packs averaged $2.41 (SD=$1.49), which was significantly less than cigarettes (M=$5.90, SD=$0.85). Regional differences suggest a greater proportion of menthol/mint LFCs and lower prices in the South than in other regions.
Conclusion Classifying all LFCs as cigarettes would require that they be offered in a minimum package of 20, eliminate flavoured varieties other than menthol and increase prices through applicable state and local cigarette taxes.
- packaging and labelling
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Although little filtered cigars (LFCs) may have wrappers containing tobacco, like other cigar products, some smokers find it difficult to distinguish LFCs from cigarettes.1 Unlike cigarillos, which are also small cigars but are usually unfiltered and packaged differently from cigarettes, LFCs contain an integrated filter, are similar to cigarettes in size, and often sold in the same-sized packs and cartons as cigarettes.1 However, LFCs are not regulated like cigarettes in the USA, illustrating a problem of tobacco control policy coherence.2 LFCs are available in characterising flavours that the USA banned from cigarettes, taxed at a lower rate and are available in smaller pack sizes, which make LFCs cheap substitutes for cigarettes.1 3–5 Economic analyses show significant increases in LFC sales as cigarette prices increase.6–8
LFCs are among the three most commonly used tobacco products by US adults and youth, particularly by non-Hispanic blacks.9 10 Dual use of cigarettes and cigars is especially prevalent among LFC users: 66.0% of LFC smokers reported they also smoked cigarettes.11 Compared with other cigar smokers, LFC smokers reported higher rates of daily cigar smoking and higher daily consumption.11 This is concerning because previous cigarette smokers are more likely to inhale cigar smoke,12 increasing their risks for adverse health effects.13 14
In December 2016, within months of asserting regulatory authority over cigars, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued warning letters to manufacturers citing four products (Swisher Sweets Grape, Cheyenne 100’s Wild Cherry, Prime Time Strawberry and Criss Cross 100’s Cherry) as being functionally equivalent to flavoured cigarettes (warning letters dated 9 December 2016 are available at https://www.fda.gov/ICECI/EnforcementActions/WarningLetters/2016/default.htm). Notably, the warnings stated that the cited products are not exhaustive of similar products, suggesting other manufacturers could receive similar warnings. The similarities between LFCs and cigarettes, but the differences in regulation, make it important to monitor the sales and the relative price of these products to better understand how product substitution could undermine efforts to reduce smoking. Using US sales data for cigars and cigarettes, this study is the first to characterise both regional-level and state-level sales of LFCs, including the four products cited in FDA’s warning letters.
Retail scanner data
Cigar and cigarette retail sales data for the continental USA were acquired from The Nielsen Company. Universal Product Code-level (UPC) sales from convenience stores, mass merchandisers, supermarkets, club/big-box stores, dollar and drug stores, and US military commissaries were assessed from 10 January 2016 through 7 January 2017. Each UPC came with a product designation of cigarillo, large cigar or little cigar. Other UPC-level information on brand, sub-brand, presence of filter, package type (eg, ‘soft pack’) and length (eg, ‘100 MM’) was used to confirm or edit product designations (~5% of UPCs). LFCs were defined as products sold by a brand/sub-brand only associated with LFCs (confirmed with internet searches), or products with an integrated filter, soft pack or length of 100 mm. Based on Nielsen’s flavour descriptor, cigar products were categorised as (1) unflavoured if the flavour descriptor was missing or specified a description indicative of tobacco (eg, ‘Regular’ or ‘Original’), (2) menthol/mint (eg, ‘Ice Menthol’ and ‘Coolmint’) or (3) other-flavoured if neither unflavoured nor menthol/mint (eg, ‘Cherry’). Products labelled as ‘Sweet’ (eg, ‘Black n Sweet’) were classified as other-flavoured.
UPC-level data from custom estimates for the 50 states and the District of Columbia were aggregated to characterise sales for the USA overall and for regions defined by the US Census (Northeast, Midwest, South, West). We computed the total unit sales, the proportion of sales by flavour category and package size, and the average price by package size. We also assessed the proportion of sales for products cited in the FDA warning letters among total and flavoured (menthol/mint and other-flavoured) LFC sales. Equivalent units of 20 LFCs were created to assess the total sales and calculate the proportions to allow for comparison across products with different tobacco weight and package sizes. The total sales were presented as sales per 100 000 people and were calculated by dividing sales by the 2016 total population estimates from the US Census Bureau.i The proportions of total sales were calculated using equivalent-unit sales to better understand consumption patterns, as dollar sales more directly reflect tax differences across jurisdictions. Prices were calculated at the UPC level by dividing dollar sales by unit sales. Average prices were calculated for each package size and weighted by unit sales to more closely reflect prices for commonly sold items. Price differences observed between LFCs and cigarettes at the national and regional levels were assessed using two-tailed t-tests. Analyses were conducted on Stata V.14.2.
Table 1 summarises the sales volume by flavour and pack size and the prices of LFCs for the USA overall and by four regions, with relevant comparisons for cigarettes. In 2016, 24 033 equivalent units ($68 516) of LFCs were sold for every 100 000 persons. Approximately half (52.5%) of LFC sales were for unflavoured products, 19.9% were menthol/mint and 27.6% were other-flavoured. The four LFCs cited by the FDA as equivalent to flavoured cigarettes comprised 4.1% of the LFC total equivalent-unit sales and 8.5% of the flavoured sales. LFCs were sold in at least 12 different package sizes, ranging from single sticks (0.4% of sales) to cartons of 200 sticks (11.7% of sales). Sales of 20-stick packs were the most common (79.7%). The average 20-stick pack price was $2.41 (SD=$1.49), significantly lower than cigarettes of the same pack size, $5.90 (SD=$0.85) (p<0.01).
LFC sales per 100 000 people in 2016 totalled 8601 equivalent units ($56 351) in the West, 15 583 units ($58 876) in the Northeast, 31 736 units ($84 450) in the Midwest and 33 034 units ($71 504) in the South. The proportion of menthol/mint pack sales ranged from 5.2% of sales in the West to 23.8% of sales in the South. Sales of other-flavoured LFCs ranged from 18.4% of sales in the Northeast to 67.1% of sales in the West. The LFCs cited by the FDA varied by region: 2.0% of sales in the South, 4.3% in the West, 4.6% in the Northeast and 7.7% in the Midwest. Among flavoured LFCs, those cited by FDA varied from 4.4% of sales in the South to 15.5% in the Midwest.
LFC 20-stick pack sales ranged from 65.6% of sales in the West to 90.9% of sales in the Northeast. Notably, the pack price of LFCs was significantly lower than the pack price of cigarettes in each region (p<0.01). The average pack prices of LFCs ranged from $1.85 (SD=$1.17) in the South, compared with $5.17 (SD=$0.87) per cigarette pack, to $4.27 (SD=$1.83) in the West, compared with $6.19 (SD=$1.04) per cigarette pack. LFC carton sales ranged from 1.5% of sales in the West to 15.3% of sales in the South. A considerable proportion of LFC sales in the West (26.6%) occurred in 12-stick packs. State-level variation of LFC sales and prices was also apparent (see online supplementary file).
Although similar in appearance to cigarettes, LFCs are cheaper and are available in a variety of flavours and package sizes across the USA. Almost half of all LFC sales were labelled as flavoured varieties. The four flavoured LFCs cited by the FDA made up about 4% of the total LFC sales and about 9% of the flavoured LFC sales in 2016. Eliminating these products from the market-place may not have had an appreciable impact on the overall LFC sales, particularly because consumers could substitute other-flavoured LFCs. This argues for a more consistent and comprehensive approach to regulation. Nine-tenths of LFC equivalent unit sales were sold in packs or cartons, similar to the most common package sizes for cigarettes, yet the average price of a 20-stick LFC pack was less than one-third the price of a cigarette pack. Classification of all LFCs as cigarettes by state and federal authorities would require that they be offered in a minimum package size of 20 sticks, eliminate the availability of flavoured varieties other than menthol, and increase prices through the application of state and local cigarette taxes. Such regulations would increase regulatory coherence with respect to combustible tobacco products,2 15 and may help correct consumer misperceptions that cigars are less harmful than cigarettes.16–18
Scanner-based sales data for cigars are subject to some limitations. First, varying weights of cigars cannot be determined from the scanner data; therefore, standardising unit sales relied on the reported number of sticks per UPC. Second, flavoured cigar sales could be underestimated or overestimated because flavour categorisations were based on flavour descriptions present in scanner data rather than product ingredient analysis. Third, although there is evidence of illegal sales of cigarettes in quantities other than federally mandated 20-stick packs,19 scanner data do not capture sales of cigarettes sold in the same variety of pack sizes available for LFCs; thus, it was not possible to compare prices of cigarettes and LFCs for all LFC package sizes. Fourth, national estimates exclude sales in Hawaii and Alaska. Fifth, the analysis reflects sales only in retail channels monitored by Nielsen, which does not include tobacco specialty stores or the internet. Sixth, Nielsen’s methods for estimating sales are proprietary and unverifiable, although this source has been widely used in research.20–23
This study documents regional-level and state-level differences in the sales of LFCs across the USA. Compared with cigarettes, LFCs are more affordable and available in a larger variety of flavours and smaller package sizes. If all LFCs were regulated and taxed as cigarettes by state and federal authorities, these products would be less attractive to youth and price-sensitive adults. Enforcing similar regulations on all combustible products would complement smoking prevention efforts and reduce the incentive for cigarette smokers to use LFCs as substitutes. Analysing sales of LFCs remains an important, complementary methodology to population surveys for monitoring consumption patterns and informing tobacco control policy.
What this paper adds
Cheap, flavoured cigar products are widely available, attractive to youth and commonly substituted for cigarettes after policies increase taxes and restrict characterising flavours in cigarettes.
Using the 2016 Nielsen sales data for the USA, this study is the first to analyse national-level, regional-level and state-level sales for little filtered cigar products that are functionally equivalent to cigarettes, and to calculate the percentage of unit sales by pack size and flavour variety, and price relative to the price of cigarettes.
The authors acknowledge the editorial assistance provided by Sallie Fiore (RTI).
↵i Annual estimates of the resident population: 1 July 2016. Source: US Census Bureau, Population Division. Release Dates: For the USA, regions, divisions, states and Puerto Rico Commonwealth, December 2016. For counties, municipios, metropolitan statistical areas, micropolitan statistical areas, metropolitan divisions and combined statistical areas, March 2017. For cities and towns (incorporated places and minor civil divisions), May 2017.
Contributors DGG, TR and LH designed the study. DGG and EMC conducted the analyses. All authors contributed to interpretation of the data. DGG drafted the manuscript, and all authors edited the drafts and approved the final version of the manuscript.
Funding Support for this study was provided by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the National Cancer Institute’s State and Community Tobacco Control Initiative (U01-CA154241 and U01-CA154281) and the NIH Public Health Service grant (5-R01-CA067850).
Competing interests None declared.
Patient consent Not required.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.