Sep. 7, 2012 at 10:10 AM ET
Updated at 11 a.m. ET: The blogosphere erupted in horror last week at the sight of 4-year-old Destiny pretending to take a drag on a cigarette while preening on the stage during a kiddie beauty pageant on the hit reality show “Toddlers and Tiaras.” It turns out that many grown-ups like to pretend to smoke as well.
While Destiny puffed on a stage prop, candy cigarettes have been around for almost a century and remain surprisingly popular among adults searching for a bit of sugary nostalgia from their childhoods. Despite years of complaints from anti-snoking activists, who say the treats desensitize children to the dangers of smoking, the confections are widely available from wholesalers and sold in many candy shops.
Some candy cigarettes, such as those made by Brooklyn-based World Confections Inc., are quite realistic. One cylindrical variety comes in a red cigarette-like box with the word “Kings” written in white print letters. A puff on the candy results in a smoky white cloud at the other end.
There are also cigarette-like candy sticks that come in smaller boxes that sometimes feature cartoon characters such as Tom and Jerry and Spider-Man.
Executives at World Confections declined to comment. Another company that once made candy cigarettes, New England Confectionary Co. or NECCO, got out of the business years ago, a spokeswoman said.
Anti-smoking activists did not see the humor in a little girl pretending to smoke.
“The Lung Association was as troubled as anyone who saw the picture of that little girl on `Toddlers and Tiaras’,” said Erika Sward, the association’s director of national advocacy, in an interview. “We need to raise awareness that smoking is not a game. … There is nothing funny or silly about real or candy cigarettes.”
A 2000 study in the British Medical Journal concluded that tobacco industry worked with the candy industry to design candy products "that would effectively promote smoking to children."
The sale of candy cigarettes is restricted in Britain, Australia and Canada, although efforts to enact similar bans have failed in the United States.
Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, won’t sell the product, according to a company spokeswoman.
"The data shows that kids don't treat them like candy," said Jonathan Winickoff, assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
The Rocket Fizz Soda Pop and Candy Shops, a chain of 37 stores in eight states, has sold candy cigarettes for years and not received any complaints about them, according to co-founder Robert Powells. Most of them are bought by adults, he said.
“We simply sell thousands of nostalgic candies, most of which have been requested by our customers over the years,” he wrote in a an email. “Candy cigarettes are an extremely small amount of our inventory (probably 1/100 of 1 percent, if that).”
Jon Prince, president of Candy Favorites, a wholesaler based in McKeesport, Pa., said people buy candy cigarettes because they want to have a connection with a simpler era.
“It represents a very different generation, the generation of the '30s, '40s and '50s,” he said. “It’s not the best-selling product we carry, but it is definitely a good-selling product.”
Arguments about nostalgia don’t cut it with anti-smoking activists.
"Candy cigarettes are like training wheels for smoking. Teaching this behavior to kids is ridiculous," said Danny McGoldrick, vice president for research at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, in a statement to NBC News.
There is another problem with candy cigarettes: They don’t taste very good.
“The gum is marginally passable, but the packaging is quite cute,” according to Candy Blog.
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A previous version of this story said Destiny used a candy cigarette. In fact, it was a stage prop, complete with fake ash.