SANDY — Santa Claus took a break from his holiday duties Monday to teach children at the Sandy Club about the dangers of "sweetened" tobacco products.
To prove the point, representatives of the Utah Department of Health and the Salt Lake Valley Health Department staged a "smell test" to demonstrate how flavored cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products have been manufactured to smell like candy — and encourage youths to use them.
"The guys who sell cigarettes are sneaky, sneaky guys. They want to trick kids and teenagers into buying cigarettes," Santa said.
Three children were blindfolded and asked to smell the contents of three small bowls. One contained a fruit-flavored bubblegum. But two bowls contained tobacco — one from a flavored cigarette and the other from a smokeless product. None of the children recognized the smell of tobacco, instead identifying the aromas as candles, mint and gum.
Following the demonstration, Santa Claus quizzed the children, "If something smells like candy but looks like a cigarette, what is it?"
"It's a cigarette!" they shouted in response.
The lesson appeared to resonate with Jase Miller-Rees, age 9. "I didn't even want them," Miller-Rees said of the flavored tobacco products.
Dayjah Sears, 8, agreed. "I didn't like them."
Kathy Garrett, tobacco prevention program manager for the Salt Lake Valley Health Department, said the products are insidious because the flavors lull users into believing they are not as unhealthy as traditional cigarettes or chewing tobacco.
"What's really alarming about these products is how they package them. When you look at these products how do you distinguish them from gum or candy? They're packaged to look like candy. They're flavored to taste like candy," Garrett said.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, plans to introduce a bill in the upcoming legislative session to ban these products in Utah, Garrett said.
Although the Food and Drug Administration leveled a ban on cigarettes containing certain flavors in 2009, flavored tobacco is still sold in cigarellos, smokeless tobacco products and loose tobacco some people use in hookahs.
According to the FDA, a poll conducted in March 2008 found one in five children ages 12 to 17 had seen flavored tobacco products or ads, while only one in 10 adults reported seeing them.
Clearly, these products are targeting youths in an attempt to hook another generation of smokers, Garrett said. Even Utah, with its low smoking rates, 8.5 percent of Utah high school students reported they had smoked in the past month, health department officials said.