Blowing Smoke : Some Say Bubble Gum Cigarettes Lead Youths to Begin Bad Habits; Others Call It a Pack of Lies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bill to keep bubble gum cigarettes out of the hands of children had heavyweight backing.

Supporters included the California Medical Assn., American Cancer Society, American Heart Assn., American Lung Assn., California Council on Alcohol Problems, League of California Cities and the California Children's Lobby.

The sole organized opposition: the National Assn. of Chewing Gum Manufacturers.

But the bill never got out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It died there in January, for the second time in a year, a casualty in the heated national debate over whether food products that look like tobacco lead children to use the real thing.

"I think there was an honest disagreement," said Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), who supported the bill. "Are we taking away from kids something that is really playful and not harmful?"

Bubble gum and candy cigarettes have been around for decades but legislative attempts to control them have gained support only recently as medical experts have become concerned over advertisements and other messages that positively portray tobacco use by young people.

During the last year, legislation similar to the California bill has been introduced in Congress, as well as in New York and Oregon. Those measures have failed to pass, but a similar bill has been introduced in Utah.

The California measure, proposed by Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), would have imposed civil fines for the sale to minors of food products that are manufactured or packaged to look like tobacco.

Targets of the legislation included bubble gum and candy cigarettes--some of which emit puffs of sugar powder and are packaged in boxes with logos resembling cigarette brands. The bill would have prohibited selling children shredded bubble gum that comes in pouches like chewing tobacco, as well as bubble gum and beef jerky in little round containers resembling snuffboxes.

Opponents of the legislation argued that bubble gum cigarettes and similar products are simply fun and in some cases are used as alternatives to tobacco.

But citing a recent study, as well as their own intuition, backers of the legislation contended that such products are dangerous because they make tobacco attractive to children.

Some backers of Thompson's legislation also contend that tobacco companies are pleased with the free advertising gained from confectionary cigarettes sold in packages that resemble real brands.

There is no evidence that the tobacco industry had any role in defeating Thompson's bill and cigarette companies note that they recently have protested the use of copycat logos by candy and bubble gum companies.

Some legislators opposed to the bill argued that the measure threatens free speech in the marketplace and raised the question of government "nannyism."

Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said: "Here we have a debate over a legal substance (food) which looks like something they don't like (tobacco), which is also legal. It seems to me (Thompson's bill) is unduly burdensome on the rights of free speech in the field of commercial advertising."

Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), a member of the Judiciary Committee who regularly champions child protection measures, drew the line at the bubble gum cigarette bill.

"We're just getting a little tired of everyone wanting to make everything against the law," Presley said. "And there should be a little parental control over some of this stuff."

Stephen Hansen, an internist on the board of the California Medical Assn., disagrees.

"We believe," Hansen said, "that young people need to be protected from the influences of those who would prey upon them, make money off them and have them make decisions about products before they are old enough to make decisions on their own. . . . The candy (cigarette) products are a part of that deadly cycle of addiction and later disease and disability and death."

The contention that such candy is hazardous is an argument carried on primarily at a visceral rather than scientific level. But supporters cite a study by researchers at the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia that was reported in January in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The study involved a survey of schoolchildren as well as interviews with youngsters who were exposed to candy cigarettes.

"Candy cigarettes may play a role in the development of children's attitudes toward smoking as an acceptable, favorable or normative behavior," the researchers concluded. "Elimination of these products should be part of efforts to prevent initiation of smoking by children."

But the chewing gum makers hired their own psychologist, who told California legislators that the study reported in Pediatrics was flawed and lacks scientific credibility.

As a non-scientific witness, opponents of the legislation present former major league pitcher Jim Bouton, co-inventor and promoter of Big League Chew. The popular shredded bubble gum comes in a pouch like chewing tobacco and sales to children would have been banned under Thompson's legislation.

"When I was a kid, I played with candy cigars, bubble gum cigarettes (and) toy guns," Bouton said. "I'm a totally nonviolent person (and) I don't smoke."

Bouton said he invented Big League Chew as an alternative to chewing tobacco, which he finds "disgusting and dangerous."

Bouton and Illinois-based Amurol Products, manufacturers of the gum, agree that the main consumers of Big League Chew are little children rather than older youngsters who are already hooked on tobacco. They say the kids chew it just for fun.

But critics insist that Big League Chew is dangerous.

"I think it's a despicable product," said Raymond Melrose, the American Cancer Society's spokesman on behalf of the Thompson bill. "It encourages behavior which is inappropriate, taking a wad of stuff simulating chewing tobacco and putting it in your mouth."

Melrose, chairman of the department of pathology at USC, also contends that the tobacco industry is pleased that confectionary cigarettes carry names similar to cigarette brands because it amounts to free advertising. The tobacco companies could stop the practice if they wanted to, Melrose argues.

The Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co.'s brand names, such as Kool and Viceroy, have been mimicked by confectionary cigarette makers. Like other tobacco companies, Brown & Williamson has recently protested, but the firm has never taken legal action, said company spokeswoman Roberta Ashe.

"Because of the difference in the candy and bubble gum packages and a long history of such uses," said Ashe, "it is very difficult to take legal action."

But as a result of the growing controversy, some confectionary cigarette makers, such as the Philadelphia Chewing Gum Corp. of Havertown, Pa., are phasing out the use of brand names that resemble those of cigarettes.

The Havertown company wraps its bubble gum cylinders in white paper to resemble cigarettes. The bubble gum cigarettes emit puffs of sugar when blown on. But the resemblance to smoke was not planned and is a result of powdering the gum to keep it from sticking to the paper, said attorney Mary Martha McNamara, who represents the National Assn. of Chewing Gum Manufacturers.

McNamara said that Edw. Fenimore Sr., president of Philadelphia Chewing Gum, "thought he was making a fun product. In the '50s when he started up these things, smoking was still considered cool."

"It never occurred to these guys that their product would ever be considered a gateway to drugs," she said. "They are just flabbergasted that they are in the middle of this big political brouhaha."

Now, McNamara said, "he (Fenimore) doesn't want to get anywhere near . . . anything that could be construed as tobacco logos."

Fenimore will instead use sports emblems on his packs of bubble gum cigarettes.

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