BROOKSVILLE — Forty years ago, it was not unusual for kids to plop down a nickel or dime for candy cigarettes.
These fake cigs came in a box that looked like a real cigarette pack and contained about 10 white sugar sticks that kids would put in their mouth and pretend they were smoking.
Many parents objected and there were rumors that tobacco manufacturers had a hand in marketing the candy cigarettes to grow a future crop of smokers.
Those sugary kids’ products are long gone. However, marketers have come up with a new product: candy-flavored smokeless tobacco. It’s not unusual to visit a convenience store and buy kiwi-strawberry, chocolate or sour apple “snus,” a moist powder tobacco placed between the upper gum and lip for extended periods of time.
In December 2011 and January 2013, the Brooksville City Council and the Hernando Board of County Commissioners respectively passed resolutions urging local tobacco retailers to restrict the sale and marketing of flavored tobacco products.
Requests for these resolutions were in response to the increase in non-cigarette tobacco products designed to appeal to youth.
Tresa Watson, program manager for Tobacco-Free Hernando, said most retailers in Hernando County have complied with the twin resolutions by removing the products from the candy sections of their stores and placing them behind the counter with the other tobacco products.
But Watson, whose organization is affiliated with the Anti-Drug Coalition of Hernando County, said there is still the need for an informational campaign to make sure retailers — and young people — realize that snus is just as bad as other tobacco products.
The containers look much like breath mint tins and the candy flavor masks the tobacco taste, which appeals to young people, Watson said.
“They’re considered to be starter products that lead into other tobacco use,” Watson said. “And a lot of the youth think that the tobacco-flavored products are less harmful than cigarettes and that’s really not the case. There is more nicotine in them.”
Hernando County Community Anti-Drug Coalition data shows tobacco use by Hernando youth is in decline, yet higher than statewide averages.
According to the 2012 Florida Youth Tobacco Survey, 15.8 percent of Hernando high school students smoked a cigarette in the past 30 days, compared to a statewide average of 10.1 percent.
Fifteen percent of local high school students reported that smoking was allowed in their home, compared to 10 percent statewide.
The 2010 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey data reports 18.2 percent of Hernando adults are smokers.
In September 2009, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned candy flavored cigarettes but not flavored tobacco. But the agency continues to investigate snus because the flavoring and lower cost are appealing to youth.
Traditional smokeless products, like chew and dip, contain 28 cancer-causing agents. Users of these products have an 80 percent higher risk of oral cancers and a 60 percent higher risk of pancreatic and esophageal cancer, according to the FDA.
Ann-Gayl Ellis, spokeswoman for the Hernando County Health Department, said she and Watson plan to meet with new school superintendent Lori Romano and the school board to again pitch the idea of a 100 percent tobacco-free campuses.
That means employees would not be able to smoke anywhere on the premises. Even parents would be prohibited from smoking while waiting in the bus line to pick up their children on school property.
Ellis and Watson were shot down in 2011 by a former superintendent and school board and she hopes the mood may be different now.
“We’re hopeful,” Ellis said.