How the Hell Are Candy Cigarettes Still a Thing?

candy cigarettes
Jason Hoffman & Cole Saladino / Thrillist

I remember the first time I handed my 2-year-old a candy cigarette. We were both on edge. The line for the old-timey train at our local zoo was crawling along, she was restless, and I began fantasizing about jumping in front of the locomotive if and when it finally rolled into the station. So I reached into my shirt pocket, peeled the cellophane from a box of "Stallions" I recently bought in a moment of nostalgic weakness, and plucked a slender, white stick from inside.

Then I hesitated. As a child of the '90s, I've seen enough anti-smoking episodes of TGIF sitcoms to have developed a healthy hatred for the habit. Combine that with my parents' constant smoking in the front seat of our station wagon and the idea of cigarettes was destroyed for me, along with my lungs, probably.

But as the saying goes, "Smoke 'em if you got 'em," and on this day I had 'em. So I placed the first candy cigarette between my lips before handing another to my daughter. She tasted it and gave it back. Not interested. In part, I suspect, because it had the texture of a cinderblock. But mostly because she's not very familiar with real cigarettes. Without that thrill of transgression, it's just bad candy.

That's a win for the American anti-smoking movement and its decades-long war against the tobacco industry's efforts to infiltrate children's brains. Joe Camel was long ago sent out to pasture and the Marlboro Man forced into retirement. Cigarette commercials are a distant memory and you're about as likely to see smoking in a kids movie as you are to see a loving step-parent. And yet, one item so insidious that nearly a dozen nations have banned it, remains on the market: candy cigarettes.

"They are still out there, which is sort of amazing," said Truth Initiative CEO Robin Koval, who explained the problem with candy cigarettes: “Anything that normalizes the idea of cigarettes in culture is a bad idea. Even to the extent that they are only a little bit of a thing, they shouldn't be."

But they are. The chalky, hard candy cigs, and the paper-wrapped bubble gum smokes that puff out that white powder stuff, are still made and sold, despite tasting horrible. The hard ones have no flavor other than sugar, and the gum adopts the taste and texture of Silly Putty in less time than it would take to smoke a Virginia Slim. They all come in boxes that could have fallen right out of a cigarette vending machine in 1983, with names such as "Kings," "Victory," and "Lucky Lights."

These days the manufacturers of candy cigarettes are small and secretive. New Jersey-based World Confections Inc. is the primary manufacturer, and the only big one left. The New England Confectionery Company, or NECCO, the company behind those noxious eponymous wafers, was a longtime producer of candy cigarettes too, but it has since stopped. Beyond confirming that fact, NECCO representatives would not speak to me for this article. Neither would World Confections Inc. The silence comes as little surprise, as avoiding attention is one of the strategies that has served the companies well over the years, as they weathered attempts at the local, state, and national levels to stub out candy cigarettes.

candy cigarettes
Jason Hoffman & Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Of course, candy cigarettes weren't always controversial. When they first appeared in the 1880s as chocolate smokes, they were sold to kids and adults, right alongside the real thing. Hershey's, in a desperate attempt to get people interested in its products, produced a mess of candied concoctions around this time, including chocolate bicycles, peas, and chrysanthemums. None took off quite like the smokes.

By the 1920s candy cigarettes were a certified hit, thanks in part to a marketing push that honed in on kids. The names -- "Poll Moll," "Cammels," and "Ghesterfield" -- and packaging candy companies wrapped around the treats mimicked real cigarettes, and the advertisements implored "young sports" to grab a carton that "look just like dad's."

That led to a lawsuit in 1928, when the American Tobacco Company, the maker of Lucky Strike cigarettes, took issue with "Lucky Smokes," a candy look-alike. The feud between the tobacco and candy industries reached its peak when this tagline showed up on Lucky Strike ads: "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet." Candy companies shot back with ads that slagged cigarettes as a way to "poison with nicotine every organ of your body."

Eventually the FTC stepped in and forced the American Tobacco Company to change its ad. But before long the confection and tobacco industries came to realize they were more powerful together than apart. Tobacco companies allowed candy makers to use their names and logos and were rewarded with exposure to potential new customers: kids! In some cases, the cooperation went beyond the tacit allowance of trademark infringement. Brown & Williamson went as far as sending cigarette labels to candy makers so that they could design their boxes just right. Privately, one lawyer for the company explained why in a letter later recovered in a court filing: "We have never raised any objection to the use of our labels feeling, for your more or less private information, that it is not too bad an advertisement." The FTC called the packaging mimicry "an indirect form of advertising aimed at children."

As the Truth Initiative's Koval explained, the tobacco industry had more than a passing interest in getting kids interested in its products. "They called young people their 'replacement smokers' because they needed replacements for the 1,200 people who die each day from a tobacco-related disease," she said. The confectioners did their part by making candy cigarettes cheap and placing them on low shelves to catch the eyes of those 4ft and under. And it worked. In 1967, World Candies Inc., which became World Confections Inc. after a merger, said the majority of candy cigarettes were consumed by children between the ages of 4 and 8. It was the golden age.

candy cigarettes
Jason Hoffman & Cole Saladino / Thrillist

That golden age would not last. The 1960s marked a turning point for the tobacco industry. In 1964 the surgeon general issued a bombshell report that made the case against cigarettes and eventually led to warning labels on cigarette packs, advertising bans, and, in time, skepticism about the role candy companies played in the kiddie-to-adult smoker pipeline.

North Dakota had already passed the nation's first statewide candy cigarette ban by this point, but it was repealed just as the idea was taking hold in other parts of the country. In 1970, Pennsylvania Rep. Fred B. Rooney called for a ban in the unsuccessful "Candy Cigarette Act." In 1971, a bill was proposed in New York State to prohibit the sale of candies that approximated pipes, cigarettes, or cigars. The New York State Association of Tobacco and Candy Distributors, a group comprised of companies supplying the nation's corner stores with sweets and smokes, led the charge against it, arguing that even the precious Tootsie Roll could be banned if this bill were to become law. The bill failed. (Those repellant Tootsie Rolls, sadly, are still with us.)

At least 11 other states and a number of cities considered bans in the next few decades, only to be knocked back by lobbyists working for the confectionery and tobacco industries. At the time, groups like the Tobacco and Candy Political Action Committee had a strategy for getting it done. First, they'd ridicule the very idea of the ban and question why politicians weren't spending their time on more worthy causes. Then they’d work to expand the language so that the bill covered far more than candy cigarettes, ensuring its eventual failure. Other times, they’d play dumb. When the Connecticut consumer protection commissioner criticized candy cigarettes in 1993, a lawyer for World Candies acted offended and insisted that the company would fight any attempt to ban its "fun healthy food" simply because it was "alleged to resemble tobacco products."

In the '80s, tobacco companies finally wised up and began demanding that candy companies stop using their brand names. But this was a dispute between friends, a way to placate the politicians who had found a new boogeyman lurking in the candy aisle. Lawsuits were rarely filed and confectioners were routinely granted the right to use up their inventories of trademark-offending packaging.

Still, the tobacco industry acknowledging even the potential impropriety of candy cigarettes marked a turning point, and California Rep. Henry Waxman sought to harness that momentum by including a ban on the candies in his 1991 tobacco control bill. In an editorial shaming of the proposed ban the New York Times ridiculed Waxman for wasting time on the effort. "The sponsors argued that even look-alikes glamorize smoking and encourage children to develop a real tobacco habit -- though there's scant evidence to support that linkage," the op-ed said. Waxman's entire bill, candy cigarette ban included, failed to make it out of committee.

The Times was on shaky footing. A study released in 1990 found that sixth-graders who ate candy cigarettes were twice as likely to have also tried the genuine article. But that study was quickly eclipsed by another one, commissioned by World Candies and NECCO, that came out the following year. Despite finding that 5.3% of smokers thought candy cigarettes contributed to their habit as adults, researchers from Hofstra University said the candies played little role in turning adolescents into smokers. It was later revealed that the two candy companies made significant changes to the first draft of the study, reducing it from 76 to 31 pages and morphing it into something they could use to fight off potential bans. The Hofstra study remains one of the key pieces of evidence candy companies present to lawmakers when they're considering legislation against their products.

In the subsequent decades, new studies have put to bed the question of whether candy cigarettes contribute to real smoking. The most significant came in 2007, when research published in Preventative Medicine found that 22% of current or former smokers regularly pretended to puff on candy cigarettes, while only 14% of non-smokers did.

By then, however, candy cigarettes were waning in popularity. The industry was able to fight off bans in the '70s and '80s and keep Congress at bay throughout the '90s, but it couldn't do anything about the stigmatization of smoking. Ultimately, that’' what drove down the candy's popularity, leading to moves like Walmart's decision to stop stocking them in 2003, which was a part of a larger plan to keep tobacco out of the hands of minors. Now, you have to go online or to a specialty candy shop to buy candy cigarettes.

Hell, even cigarette companies have come out against candy cigarettes. David Howard, spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, told me candy cigarettes "might" suggest that smoking is not dangerous and are therefore "not appropriate."

candy cigarettes
Jason Hoffman & Cole Saladino / Thrillist

As candy cigarettes fell out of favor, the target consumer aged. A half-century ago, candy cigarettes were a tool that confectionary and tobacco companies used to ensnare children into a lifetime of addiction. Now they're just another part of the nostalgia industrial complex, sold primarily to those who remember them from when they were trying to emulate pops.

"We see parents and grandparents coming in and rediscovering candy cigarettes. They use them for costuming, for parties, for nostalgic gifting," said Terese McDonald, founder of Chicago-based specialty candy store Candyality., a distributor which sells 24 boxes of candy cigarettes for $8.40, sells to customers who throw World War II parties, where cigarette girls carry trays loaded with the candies. Old dudes who need the final piece of their greaser Halloween costume make up a decent chunk of the customer base too. Once favored by those too young to smoke the real things, candy cigarettes now belong to those old enough to know better.

Stephen Traino, owner of distributor, said he's seen sales of the the candies drop in the past decade. "The people who remember these most grew up in the '50s through the '70s. My theory is that people who missed these have already looked up and bought this candy to fulfill their memories of childhood," he said.

And so that finally leads us to an answer to the question posed in the headline of this story: how the hell are candy cigarettes still a thing? People who liked candy cigarettes when they were kids still like them as adults. Those willing to search for them are still buying them, so candy companies are still producing them.

Coincidentally, this is the same reason why candy cigarettes won't be around forever. As the wistful old-timers die off, from either the smoking habit developed one candy cigarette at a time, or a lifetime of sugar consumption, the candy cigarette will likely die off with them.

Until then, maybe a product that symbolized the previous century’s leading public health menace -- cigarettes -- could be used to combat our current one: obesity. Just do what I did: give a cranky toddler these crumbly sticks of sucrose, and tell her this is what candy tastes like.

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Adam K. Raymond is a writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about sports, pop culture, technology, and politics for outlets like New York Magazine, Esquire, Maxim, and Yahoo. Follow him @adamkraymond.