Last updated: March 17. 2013 2:57AM - 1321 Views

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Ann Marie Bossard, co-owner of the Anthracite Newstand in Wilkes-Barre, has seen the sales of flavored tobacco products skyrocket as the cost of cigarettes has soared and the economy has soured. And younger customers and women are the primary buyers.

As she talked Wednesday about the multitude of flavored cigars now available, from mango to melon, white vanilla to pink berry, Avery Bradford came in to buy a five-pack of grape-flavored Phillies Blunts cigars.

The 18-year-old from Wilkes-Barre said he prefers the flavored cigars to other tobacco products and the price of $4.79 is less than most cigarettes. He said others his age also enjoy the flavored-tobacco products.

Bradford is a prime example of why Pennsylvania and other states are failing when it comes to battling Big Tobacco and preventing companies from promoting products to a new generation of potential smokers.

A report card issued Wednesday by the American Lung Association gives Pennsylvania an ‚??F‚?Ě for its efforts to prevent smoking and control tobacco use. ‚??C‚?Ě grades were handed out in the categories of smoke-free air and cigarette taxes.

At $1.60, Pennsylvania is far below rates in neighboring states including Maryland ($2); New Jersey ($2.70) and New York, which at $4.35, has the highest excise tax in the nation. The Keystone State ranks well when compared to many Southern states where tobacco has long been the king of the crops. Rates below a dollar still exist in 20 states.

But it wasn‚??t the cigarette tax rate that drew the ire of the association. Instead it was its lack of taxes on other tobacco products including cigars, smokeless tobacco and pipe tobacco.

Pennsylvania is the only state that does not tax these other tobacco products, though it considers small cigars to be cigarettes for taxation purposes.

And it‚??s those other products that are being marketed to kids and helping tobacco companies continue to reap in big profits.

‚??By not having a level playing field with tobacco taxes, we‚??re seeing market shifts from cigarettes to lesser taxed and subsequently more affordable tobacco products. This means candy-flavored cigars and a new wave of smokeless products are enticing new, young customers to become addicted to nicotine,‚?Ě said Paul G. Billings of the American Lung Association.

Low price drives sales

Though flavored cigars were in the price range of some brands of cigarettes, many of them were less than $2, and Bossard, at the Anthracite Newsstand, said people know the price difference and choose the products based on that disparity.

There‚??s no doubt, she added, the low-priced flavored items contributed to more sales.

Throw in the perceived lack of state spending to battle smoking prevention and Lung Association officials said the tobacco companies are able to stay in the game and succeed.

‚??Pennsylvania must make it a priority to invest in programs that keep kids off tobacco and to help smokers quit,‚?Ě said Deb Brown, president and chief executive officer of the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic.

Although Pennsylvania receives $1.4 billion in tobacco-related revenue annually, it spends just 11 percent of $155.5 million, which is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends be used to fund tobacco prevention and quitting smoking programs.

‚??We are faced with a deep-pocketed, ever-evolving tobacco industry that‚??s determined to maintain its market share at the expense of our kids and current smokers,‚?Ě said Billings.

State Rep. Phyllis Mundy, D-Kingston, blamed lobbyists and certain unnamed ‚??influential people in state government‚?Ě for preventing excise taxes to be approved for smokeless and other tobacco products.

‚??If it were up to me I would tax them and use that money in the general fund,‚?Ě Mundy said. ‚??Certainly we need the revenue.‚?Ě

While she agreed with the report being critical of the lack of that specific tax, she said when it comes to public funding for education and prevention, she believes more spending won‚??t stop many from smoking.

‚??Who doesn‚??t know in this point in time that tobacco use is hazardous to your health? I am perpetually amazed when I see teenagers and young adults smoking,‚?Ě Mundy said.

Bossard said she didn‚??t believe instituting a tax on cigars and other tobacco products would lead to a drop in sales.

‚??It wouldn‚??t change anything,‚?Ě she said.

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