Children buy herb cigarettes legally
Herbal cigarettes look harmless enough in the hands of 16-year-old Twinetta Linx.
The package, adorned with leprechauns and shamrocks using the brand name Herbal Gold, could be mistaken for that of a box of candy.
But health officials say they are deadly and that because of a loophole it is legal to sell them to children.
The Federal Trade Commission issued a statement last year that herbal blends "are not statutorily required to bear a Surgeon General's warning and are not subject to laws that bar tobacco sales to minors."
Herbal cigarettes have been around since 1997 and are gaining in sales. Instead of tobacco and nicotine, the cigarettes contain catnip, wild lettuce, damiana, passion flower and marshmallow.
They are often marketed as a safe alternative to tobacco smoking. Health professionals say that is nonsense.
"Light tobacco? That truly is not the case," said Dr. Anne O'Donnell, associate professor and chief of pulmonary critical care at Georgetown University Hospital.
"Any smoking has the potential for medical problems and an addiction to the smoking itself."
She said each year new patients come into her office at younger ages to be treated for the effects of smoking. She said youngsters might use herbal cigarettes as a stepping stone to tobacco.
"The physical act of smoking and starting on that path, especially as a child, would make someone more likely to pick up the habit **of smoking tobacco cigarettes**," Dr. O'Donnell said.
In addition to lung disorders, Dr. O'Donnell said smokers are more susceptible to oral cancers and coronary and vascular diseases.
Mitch Zeller, former director of the Food and Drug Administration's smoking division, said the agency did not test the effects or the ingredients of herbal cigarettes. Mr. Zeller's department was closed last year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress did not give the FDA authority over smoking enforcement.
Twinetta tried regular cigarettes and didn't like them. She said she started smoking because the grown-ups around her were doing it.
"I started taking puffs of my mom's when she wasn't looking," she said.
After the first time, she ran out of the house and started coughing and choking in the backyard.
She tried the Herbal Gold after a friend told her the cigarettes weren't as bad as regular smokes. Now she is used to lighting up a cherry-, vanilla- or mint-flavored cigarette when her parents aren't around.
"It's relaxing. It makes you feel good," she said. But she said she hopes her mother isn't reading this article, even if she isn't breaking the law.
Tammy Lewis, staff assistant for the D.C. Council's Judiciary Committee, said the office has not been notified of any concerns regarding herbal cigarettes.
"It is certainly something we would take a look at if it were a problem," Ms. Lewis said.
The most recent move to ban the sale of them to minors came last year when the New York City Council voted 45-0 to ban the sales of herbal cigarettes within city limits.
Last year the FTC forced two companies, Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co. and Alternative Cigarettes, to post a disclaimer on their packages saying they are not safer than traditional smokes.
The brands initially marketed them as a safe alternative to conventional cigarettes and the 599 additives the tobacco industry admitted it uses. Now the brands carry the warning: "Herbal cigarettes are dangerous to your health. They produce tar and carbon monoxide."
"The companies we have gone to have not shown any proof that they are safe," said Brenda Mack, press officer for the FTC.
Ms. Mack said Santa Fe and Alternative were the only two companies they have imposed restrictions against, but that is not to say they are not investigating other herbal cigarette makers. They just can't talk about which companies are next, she said.
Sales are brisk for the herbal alternatives. Benjamin Bright, president of Temple of Ecstacy Corporation, said his company is selling millions of packs of Ecstacy cigarettes a year.
He said legally he cannot make a claim as to how safe his product is but said, "I would prefer them over tobacco." Mr. Bright said there have been no health studies on his products.
He said naming his cigarettes Ecstacy is to get them noticed but that there is no relation to the illegal, ephedrine-based drug Ecstasy.
He said that while it is not illegal to sell to minors, he tries not to sell to children.
"We make them order through credit cards. Most 18-year-olds don't have credit cards," he said.
Baltimore-based HerbalEcstasy.cc is the largest online seller of the Ecstacy brand cigarettes, selling 1,000 packs a week.
A man who would identify himself only as "Lou" said he operates the Web site. Lou said he usually doesn't see his customers but said his top buyers are smokers who want to quit smoking.
"It's not a 'get high' product," Lou said. "It's a smoking alternative."
Joe Camp, operations manager of Riverdale Organics in Riverdale, said most buyers are occasional partygoers and people trying to quit smoking, although he gets plenty of reorders. But nothing keeps the company from selling to minors.
"We try to keep it over the age of 18," Mr. Camp said. "We don't want minors ordering stuff."