Move to Snuff Bidis Gains Steam

Amy Bracken
July 1, 2000

Illinois has become the first state in the nation to ban the sale of bidi cigarettes. Last month Gov. George Ryan (R) signed House Bill 4369, which had overwhelmingly passed the legislature, declaring the sale of bidis illegal. A ban of these tiny, hand-rolled, flavored cigarettes, which are popular among young teens, has been in effect in Chicago since February and Evanston, Ill., since May.

“Bidi cigarettes resemble marijuana joints, which may influence their popularity,” said the governor’s statement on the bill. “The CDC [Centers for Disease Control] found that bidis produce three times the nicotine and carbon monoxide and five times the tar of regular cigarettes.”

The movement to ban bidis — which generally contain shredded tobacco (in varying amounts) blended with herbs and wrapped in a temburni or tendu leaf — is a far cry from the David and Goliath struggle that U.S. tobacco industry foes face. Because bidis are manufactured in poor Asian countries such as India and make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. tobacco market, there is little political pressure to keep them legal.

The Illinois Coalition Against Tobacco and the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago were among the strongest lobbyists for the bill.

So if there is no strong resistance, why are bidis legal in most of the country? People are just becoming aware of the problem because of tobacco lawsuits, said State Sen. Kathleen Parker (R-Norbrook), a cosponsor of the senate bill. The American Lung Association targeted Illinois for such legislation because Chicago had already passed a ban. Chicago’s ban, in turn, has been attributed to the initiative of Rev. Michael Pfleger, an outspoken Chicago pastor who fights damaging products that target African-American youth.

There are five commonly cited reasons to ban bidis: They are often manufactured in sweatshop-like conditions, sometimes by child labor; the cigarettes, once imported to the United States, are given candy-like flavors and colorful packaging that appeal to kids; some think bidis may be a gateway to drugs because they look like marijuana joints and produce a powerful head rush; consumers tend to be unaware of the fact that bidis are higher in nicotine, tar and carbon monoxide than other cigarettes; and finally, some tobacco opponents ban them because they’d ban any smokeable product they can.

New Trend?

Human rights workers focus on the first reason. In 1996, Human Rights Watch of New York reported that nearly 325,000 children were employed by Indian bidi manufacturers as underpaid “bondage slaves.” And in November 1999, CBS’s “60 Minutes II” aired “Tobacco Slaves in India,” which reported that bidi maker Mangalore Ganesh Beedi Works used forced child labor. It was this expose, as well as newspaper articles on the health hazards of bidis and their impact on kids, that inspired Dan Colpetzer, general business manager at Seneca Smokes/Long Trails, in Sanborn, N.Y., to stop selling the product. “I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “When we first started selling them, we didn’t really look at them close.” When they did, they realized that “they really do look like marijuana joints. ... You don’t know what those people put into them.”

Youth and health campaigners also concern themselves with bidi marketing practices. Bidi flavors include chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, mango and grape, and are held together by colored strings. According to the Tobacco Free Project of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, bidis are sold to minors without identification almost twice as often as are other cigarettes. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in September 1999 that 40 percent of urban youths in Massachusetts had tried bidis.

According to a report by the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center in San Francisco, 44 percent of adolescent smokers believe bidis can’t give them cancer. This came as no surprise to the center’s investigators, who found that the required Surgeon General’s warning label was missing on 70 percent of the packs of bidis they inspected — packs that young people were able to buy 24 percent of the time.

The appearance of innocuousness created by the candy flavoring and colorful packaging belies bidis’ harmful nature. Although bidis contain less tobacco than other cigarettes, they contain more than three times the amount of nicotine and five times the amount of tar, and contain no filter. What’s more, the way that bidis burn (burning out very easily) requires deeper inhalation to keep them lit. There is no question that cigarette smoking is a bigger problem among youth than bidi smoking is; but bidis are an easier target. According to Sen. Parker, the anti-bidi bill is the first anti-smoking bill in five years to even pass the state’s general assembly. “Hopefully this will be the beginning of a new trend,” she said.
It may well be. The National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) has decided to work toward a crackdown on bidi cigarettes in every state, and called on Congress to “do everything possible to enforce laws to ensure that bidis are not available to children and youth in the U.S.”

Since then, Washington state has stepped up efforts to ensure that bidis are not sold to minors over the Internet, Arizona has passed a law imposing the same labeling and age restrictions that are imposed on other cigarettes, and a similar bill in Florida is awaiting Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) signature. And, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, efforts have been launched in 16 states to stop bidi sales over the Internet.

But the NAAG wants Congress to stop the importation of bidis altogether. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.) introduced legislation, now with 16 cosponsors, to ban the import of “bidi cigarettes (containing tobacco wrapped in temburni or tendu leaf, without a filter).” The bill is before the House Ways and Means Committee.

Bracken, Amy. "Move to Snuff Bidis Gains Steam." Youth Today, July/August 2000, p. 9.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.