Meghan Cox Gurdon: Candy cigarettes provide a glamorous lure to the real thing

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Local,Meghan Cox Gurdon

What do you get when you combine sugar, corn starch, corn syrup, tapioca, beef gelatin and "artificial flavors," and form the paste into thin cylinders?

The answer is a product that has been outlawed (according to Wikipedia) in Finland, Norway, Ireland, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Anything banned across such a rich variety of cultures would surely be prohibited in safety-first Maryland, you'd think, yet here was this dangerous product for sale in a little roadside convenience store on the Eastern Shore.

"Candy cigarettes! I don't believe it!" cried a customer.

"Are they good?" asked the customer's child.

She sounded dubious. They had come to the convenience store to buy chocolate, graham crackers and marshmallows for s'mores. Who wanted to eat a cigarette?

"Well, no," said her mother. "They're not good, exactly. They don't taste good. But they're so wonderfully countercultural that we have to buy some."

She filled her hands with packs of candy cigarettes -- some were labeled "Stallion," others were called "Kings," and one bore the name "Round Up," which sounds like weed killer but in this case was meant to evoke the manly adventures of the Wild West.

Three good-natured teenage boys were waiting behind the counter to ring up sales, wisecracking with customers, and they seemed as surprised as the woman had been by the presence of candy cigarettes in their store.

"Whoa, I thought these were outlawed, like, decades ago!" said the first boy, who could not have been much beyond a decade and a half old himself.

"They're a bad influence on the young," said the second boy.

"Yeah," said the third, and he wagged his forefinger at the customer's daughter. "Cigarettes ruin lives. They'll rot your teeth!"

Everyone in the transaction regarded the taboo around candy cigarettes as spurious -- or at least as overly fearful. They were all laughing.

Sure, the packs holding the candy were designed to look like real, child-size cigarette packs that a child-size James Dean could roll into the sleeve of his child-size T-shirt. And certainly, the candy imitated an adult product that causes ashtray breath at best and fatal disease at worst.

But really: How bad an influence on children could some sticks of sugar, corn starch, corn syrup, tapioca, beef gelatin and "artificial flavors" be?

The customer was about to find out. She and her daughter drove back to the beach where the rest of their family had set up a barbecue and unpacked their treasures.

"Marshmallows!"

"Candy cigarettes!"

"Cool! Throw me a pack!"

Within seconds, every young person on the scene had disappeared into his or her own nicotine-fueled drama.

The youngest seemed to have turned into Barbara Stanwyck. She trailed an invisible diaphanous gown and made languid gestures, as if her cigarette were in a long holder. Another, a candy cigarette between her teeth, seemed to be dealing cards to a group of unseen Mississippi gamblers. A third girl strolled elegantly along in the wind, pausing now and then to take an ostentatious puff. The boy could have been on the label of "Round Up." He was whittling, with a butt in the corner his mouth and his eyes narrow and cool, like a rebel without a cause.

In short, when a group of children got their hands on candy cigarettes, they began to behave exactly as anti-tobacco campaigners fear children will.

The imitation death sticks turned instantly into implements of glamour and adventure. It was not hard to imagine that the good feeling the children got from playing with candy cigarettes might -- just might -- translate into a greater willingness to try the real things later.=

The woman and her husband exchanged a look and silently agreed. Once these candies were gone, there would be no more. It seemed possible, now, that the Finns, Norwegians, Irish, Turks and Saudis were on to something.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.

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