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BALTIMORE — In 2009, Congress passed a landmark law intended to eliminate an important gateway to smoking for young people by banning virtually all the flavors in cigarettes that advocates said tempted them.
Health experts predicted the change would lead to deep reductions in youth smoking.
But the law was silent on flavors in cigars and a number of other tobacco products, instead giving the Food and Drug Administration broad discretion to decide whether to regulate them.
Four years later, the agency has yet to assert that authority.
As a result, a rainbow of cheap flavored cigars and cigarillos, including some that look like cigarettes, line the shelves of convenience stores and gas stations, often right next to the candy.
FDA officials say they intend to regulate cigars and other tobacco products, but they do not say how or when. Smoking opponents contend that the agency’s delay is threatening progress in reducing smoking among young people.
Cigarette sales are down by a third over the last decade, according to federal data, but agency critics say the gains are offset by the rise of cheaper alternatives such as cigars, whose sales have doubled over the same period and whose flavored varieties are smoked overwhelmingly by young people.
Loose tobacco and cigars expanded to 10 percent of all tobacco sold in the United States in 2011, up from just 3 percent in 2000, federal data show.
“The 20th century was the cigarette century, and we worked very hard to address that,” said Gregory Connolly, the director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Now the 21st century is about multiple tobacco products. They’re cheap. They’re flavored. And some of them you can use anywhere.”
The FDA is wrestling with how to exercise its authority.
In recent weeks, for example, it sent warning letters to several companies that it says are disguising roll-your-own tobacco as pipe tobacco, a practice that industry analysts say has become a common way to avoid federal taxes and FDA regulation.
“The giant has finally awoken and hopefully will do its job,” said Ron Bernstein, the chief executive of Liggett Vector Brands, a cigarette producer that is worried about unfair competition from cigar makers and others.
Mitchell Zeller, 55, a public-interest lawyer who now is the director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products this year, admitted that the emergence of tobacco products meant a new look was needed.
“What we’ve seen in the past 10 years is this remarkable transformation of the marketplace,” he said. “There are products being sold today — unregulated products — that literally did not exist 10 years ago.”
But new rules have to be grounded in scientific evidence, he said, and written to withstand legal challenges. The tobacco industry won a recent court fight against graphic images on cigarette labels.
The FDA’s careful approach exasperates smoking opponents.
“We shouldn’t need 40 years of study to figure out that chocolate and grape-flavored cigars are being smoked by young people,” said Matthew Myers, the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Traditional handmade cigars have been viewed as a luxury for older men, but much of the recent growth has been in products sold in convenience stores to low-income customers.
Flavored cigars now represent more than half of all convenience store and gas station cigar sales, up nearly 40 percent since 2008, according to Nielsen market data analyzed by Cristine Delnevo, a tobacco researcher at Rutgers University.
A three-pack of Good Times flavored cigarillos at Everest costs 99 cents, an alluring price for the store’s clientele: young, poor African-Americans.
Smaller cigars popular among young people tend to be inhaled more, making the health risks similar to cigarettes.
Nationally, about 1 in 6 18 to 24-year-olds smoke cigars, U.S. research shows, compared with only 2 percent of people over 65. More than half of the younger users smoke flavored cigars, with the highest rates among the poorest and least educated.
Cigar producers say they are bracing for FDA action, even as sales have flattened in the last few years, dampened by new taxes.
But they point out that the FDA has not banned the most common flavor, menthol, in cigarettes.
“We continue to ask the question, ‘What’s the rationale?’” said Joe Augustus, a spokesman for cigar producer Swisher International. Flavors have existed “since the beginning of time,” he said.