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Lacing the smokers' brew with honey

By Simon Chapman - posted Thursday, 11 August 2005


A new range of fruit-flavoured cigarettes has been launched in Australia, posing the biggest test yet to the integrity of government policy on preventing young people from smoking. The DJ Mix Special Feel fluro-packed brand comes in a tantalising range of nose-jerking artificial flavours such as Lemon Twist, Orange Feel, Strawberry and Iced Green Apple. The Strawberry pack smells like bubble gum and would have as much appeal to adult smokers as an Avril Lavigne concert.

An international website promoting the tobacco equivalents of alcopops is overflowing with breathless feedback from kids desperate to step up and be infected with the latest viral marketing campaign from the tobacco industry: “hi, im from Melbourne in Australia and i was wondering where i could find and purchase the dj mix ciggerettes cause i think they're fantastic and it would sell really well over here.” [ed: all sic]

Just as it would be unimaginable that the federal health minister would allow a confectionary manufacturer to market lolly packages containing a chocolate syringe with snortable sherbet powder branded as “Smack”, it would be unconscionable for health ministers Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne to do a Pontius Pilate on cigarettes like these, overtly marketed at the most gormless of kids.

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DJ Mix is imported from Hong Kong by the Sydney-based Trojan Tobacco Company, a corporate gnat among local tobacco giants Philip Morris, British American Tobacco and Imperial. But the gnat might have a huge sting in its tail. If the government steps in and pulls the flavoured DJ Mix from the shelves as it should, the flavourants genie will be out of the bottle for nearly every mainstream brand being marketed by the big three.

If you go to Philip Morris’ website (pdf file 270KB) where it lists those ingredients it is prepared to reveal under the current voluntary disclosure agreement with government, we find that mainstream brands are pickled in the same sort of carefully chosen flavourants. The companies know that a spoonful of sugar helps the tobacco smoke go down, particularly with young people who when starting to smoke find the harsh taste and “mouth feel” of smoke a turn-off.

Take Philip Morris’ Alpine. Besides menthol flavour designed to mask harshness, it has added honey, sugar, cocoa, licorice and carob to the flavourant brew. Oddly enough, Philip Morris doesn’t list an ingredient called “Alpine exotic” which its internal correspondence shows it imports from the US to add to the cocktail. Nor does the Marlboro ingredient listing reveal if the lip-smacking “Marlboro Concentrate” is still added, as a 1981 telex revealed.

If the government acts to stop fruit-flavoured DJ Mix cigarettes because the company importing it is upfront in promoting it as a flavoured brand, how can they continue to allow mainstream brands with more flavours than a Darrell Lea hamper to be sold on the wink that these flavours are added, but not flaunted on the pack and found only on an obscure website at the end of cyberspace?

The government can act to regulate tobacco products whenever it chooses. It did so in 1991 when it banned the sale of smokeless (chewing) tobacco products, most of which can cause quite rapid onset of oral cancer. Following the example of Canada and the state of New York, it seems set to also require that all cigarettes conform to reduced ignition propensity standards, so that discarded cigarettes will start less bush and house fires. Burns specialists like Australian of the Year Fiona Wood are supporting a unanimous push from the state emergency services ministers to see an Australian standard introduced by March 2006.

Flavouring additives are a Pandora’s box for the industry. It tries to frame the argument in terms of inviolable, patented brand “recipes” intrinsic to the appeal of each brand. Deconstructed, this commercial law smokescreen allows it to use flavourants and additives to make smoking maximally palatable to those starting to smoke, 80 per cent of which are children.

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The DJ Mix fiasco shows how any opportunistic company can exploit this regulatory desert and openly give the finger to government policy on deterring kids from smoking. Will health ministers Abbott and Pyne take the easy route and simply squash the bothersome gnat, or will they confront the central problem of the regulatory no-man's land that allows all tobacco companies to add literally whatever they like to their products and be accountable to no one.

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First published in the Canberra Times on July 29, 2005.



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About the Author

Professor Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney and author of Over Our Dead Bodies: Port Arthur and Australia's Fight for Gun Control.

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