The nation's top distributor of clove cigarettes is offering fans a new way to get their fix after the spice-flavored cigarettes are banned later this year — cigars.
The new filtered cigars — close to the size of a cigarette and flavored with clove, vanilla and cherry — allow Kretek International Inc., which imports Djarum-brand tobacco products from Indonesia, to avoid new federal laws banning flavored cigarettes other than menthol.
The ban on flavored cigarettes, which critics say appeal to teenagers, goes into effect at the end of September. It doesn't include cigars.
The difference? Cigarettes are wrapped in thin paper, cigars in tobacco leaves. While the cigars also are made with a different kind of tobacco, the taste is similar. The cigars come 12 to a pack, rather than 20 for cigarettes, but cost nearly half as much.
The ban is one of the first visible effects of a new law signed by President Barack Obama in June that gives the Food and Drug Administration wide-ranging authority to regulate tobacco, though it can't ban nicotine or tobacco outright.
The new law gives the FDA the power to ban other products like flavored cigars, but that hasn't happened yet.
Whether the cigars are truly different or just an attempt to circumvent the ban by making superficial changes is in the hands of the FDA, said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
"The key is the legislation gives the FDA the authority to respond to these types of frankly totally irresponsible actions," Myers said.
Myers joined executives from the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association and the Amercian Legacy Foundation late last month urging the FDA to take a closer look at the issue.
Often associated with hippies and other bohemians, clove cigarettes may be the most well-known target of the ban. Some major cigarette makers experimented with mint- or chocolate-flavored blends earlier this decade, but many of those products are no longer made after coming under fire, accused of targeting children.
John Geoghegan, director of brand development for Moorpark, California-based Kretek International, said the private company has been "puzzled about (the ban) since the very beginning" because clove cigarettes constitute less than 1 percent of cigarettes sold in the U.S.
"For people to say, 'Well, clove is a starter cigarette or a trainer cigarette' or something was just preposterous," Geoghegan said, citing company research about when and how consumers begin smoking.
Kretek International holds a 97 percent U.S. market share with its line of Djarum clove cigarettes, a staple of Indonesian smoking culture.
The U.S. market for clove cigarettes is about $140 million annually, with about 1.25 million clove smokers. Cloves have been imported to the U.S. since the 1960s and are mostly smoked by people younger than 30.
While Geoghegan said clove cigarettes make up about 65 percent of Kretek International's business, the ban is "damaging but not fatal" because of the company's other products like lighters and pipe tobacco.
Now, clove smokers are being forced to decide whether to switch to the new cigars, or quit. Many will likely stock up or try to buy product over the Internet.
And how the ban will work remains a point of contention for shop owners who sell clove cigarettes. But the FDA says the message is clear: Flavored cigarettes are banned, and the agency has the authority necessary to enforce the prohibition.
"So, what do we do with the stuff that's on the shelves? Who eats that? Is it legal to sell until it's gone or what?" asked Jim Carlson, owner of two CVille Smoke Shop stores in Charlottesville, Virginia, about 70 miles northwest of Richmond.
Carlson said he sells about 3,000 packs of the flavored cigarettes a year.
"You don't make a lot of money, but still it's income ... and it brings customers into the store," he said.
Lake Isabella, California, resident Terry Day, 42, used to drive 240 miles round trip to buy clove cigarettes when he lived in rural Valentine, Nebraska. He said he might try the cigars but was dubious about whether he would like them.
"I certainly don't like to be forced into that choice," said the clove smoker of 14 years. "I'm probably going to buy me enough to last until Oct. 1, then I'm just going to have to quit."