Sweet as Candy, Deadly as Cigarettes

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BRIDGET MONTGOMERY/AP

Bidi cigarettes are imported from India and come in different flavors

A teenager couldn't have dreamed up a cooler cigarette: it's hand rolled, wrapped in a leaf and looks like a joint. But like candy, it comes in such flavors as grape, chocolate and root beer. To top things off, it's sold in hip venues like head shops and health-food stores at a cost of about a buck a pack less than the price of conventional smokes. What is it? The Indian bidi, and it's smokin', especially among teens. About 70% of the tobacco smoked in India is in the form of bidis, but the product didn't take off in the U.S. until recently. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 2% to 5% of teens nationwide and up to 40% in some urban areas, like Boston, have lighted up a bidi at least once. Even more troubling: young smokers think this hip alternative to Marlboro Country is harmless.

In fact, where there's smoke, there's danger. Researchers from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported last week that smoke from bidis is no safer — and may be more dangerous — than that of conventional filter cigarettes. In a series of 90-minute sessions, researchers asked 10 healthy young volunteers to smoke bidis, flavored and unflavored, as well as their usual filtered brands. An analysis of the volunteers' blood revealed that nicotine levels were significantly higher after they smoked the bidis than after ordinary cigarettes. In some cases, the levels of exhaled carbon monoxide were higher too. "Kids think they're not smoking real cigarettes. Some even think they've stopped smoking if they use these alternatives," says Wallace Pickworth, a pharmacologist with NIDA and lead investigator of the study. "But these cigarettes are delivering highly toxic compounds."

The teens' confusion is easy to understand. In addition to their shameless lollipop flavoring, bidis are smaller and weigh about two-thirds less than conventional cigarettes, so they may appear to be less substantial and therefore less noxious. But the dark Indian tobacco they contain has as much as three times the nicotine concentration of American grown. The leaf wrapping, which comes from the tendu plant, doesn't help either. Unlike the paper on a conventional cigarette, the tendu leaf is nonporous, so it prevents outside air from mixing with the inhaled smoke and diluting it.

Smoke from ordinary cigarettes contains thousands of chemicals. Researchers suspect that if bidis are so good at delivering one or two, they're probably just as good at delivering the whole slew. That's enough to send the idea that bidis are safe, well, up in smoke.

You can send e-mail to Janice at jmhtime@aol.com