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Candy cigarettes and ‘Toddlers & Tiaras’

If we needed any more evidence that the world is going to heck in a handbasket, it would of course be the recent episode of “Toddlers and Tiaras,” the reality show about kid beauty pageants, in which 4-year-old Destiny “smoked” a candy cigarette as she aped a song from the movie “Grease.” Outrage ensued.

It’s the controversy that won’t go away: Now we have an interview this week in which Destiny’s mom was taken to task by HLN TV’s Nancy Grace for allowing her child to pretend-smoke.

“I know you were trying to have your daughter mimic the star of the ‘Grease’ musical, but I believe there are many other possibilities in mimicking her than having her smoke,” Grace chastised.

“It was just a prop -- nothing more, nothing less,” said the mom to Grace: Her tot, she said, knows smoking is bad.

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And more.

It’s an odd thing to focus on given that the show is is so egregious in countless other ways. Slate writer Amanda Marcotte has thoughts on that. In a columm headlined “A Little Girl ‘Smokes’ a Candy Cigarette on ‘Toddlers & Tiaras.’ Cue Freakout,” she argues it’s a “safe” kind of outrage.

Pageants, she writes, are “simply the most obvious example of how we teach girls from a young age that their sexual appeal matters more than anything else about them. To say that out loud, however, carries the implication that there might also be something wrong with putting adult women’s sexual appeal before every other quality. So instead critics of child beauty pageants stick to complaints that sound less feminist/scary.”

But the ire is also a definite indicator of how much times have changed and how denormalized smoking has become. When I was a kid, candy cigarettes were everywhere. Parents bought them for us without batting an eye. That was the least of it: My older sister made a lovely mosaic ashtray for our parents as part of a school art project; later on, I was shown how to make ones in my ceramics class -- gorgeous things with molten glass on the bottom or shaped like a cat with a hollow in its back that my parents still have in their living room.

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Tell kids of today that and they won’t believe you. By the time my own child was in school, she and her pals would grab my arm on the street and point and yell (embarassingly loudly), “Loooook! Look at that man! He’s SMOKING!”

Do candy cigarettes increase the likelihood a child will go on to smoke? A 2007 study suggested they might, though it falls short of proving cause and effect. Published in the journal Preventive Medicine, the survey of 25,887 adults found higher rates of childhood candy-cigarette use among those who smoked or had ever smoked. Specifically, “Candy cigarette use was reported by 88% of both current and former smokers and 78% of never smokers,” the study found.

The Stanford School of Medicine says that “although these products clearly desensitize children to smoking by normalizing cigarette usage amongst younger generations, efforts to outlaw candy cigarettes in the United States (both in 1970 and again in 1991) have been unsuccessful. Other countries, such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and Finland, have been proactive in banning candy cigarettes.”

Candy sticks are still to be found, however, in some of those places -- though the red “lit-up” tip has gone away.

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