The History Of The Candy Cigarette

by Shawn Binder on 10/28/2019 | 6 Minute Read

It was Halloween, 2004. I was 12, and my parents had finally given me permission to trick or treat with my friends without their supervision. It was a big deal since they knew my parents as “the strict ones.” 

Although tobacco use has been commonplace for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1920’s that a slightly more sinister version of smoking emerged, one that was sweet but made you look just like your old man after a long day at the office. Candy cigarettes were introduced to the American Market by the Hershey Corporation when they began production on chocolate smokes. During this time, Hershey was throwing things at the wall to see what stuck; they made candy tricycles and candy toys, but none of those seemed to take quite like cigarettes. 

I remember the first time someone gave me a candy cigarette. 

The evening was relatively uneventful, but the haul we pulled was legendary. Before heading inside, I hid a box of candy cigarettes in my Robin costume, knowing that my mother would be checking to make sure no morsel was opened or tampered with before I chowed down. Under my covers later that night, I sucked on a chalky, sweet candy cigarette, holding it between my fingers like I was a 50s gangster. I felt dangerous and rebellious. I’d only ever seen Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction chain smoke before, but at that moment, I too felt like I had on a bob and wanted to dance. 

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I’d later go on to smoke throughout college because I was a writer who thought that’s just what you do. Whether these two experiences are correlated is the discussion surrounding children’s consumption of candy cigarettes. All I can remember is that I felt just as cool in college puffing at backyard poetry reading as I did in my bedroom when I was 12. 

Shortly after, companies such as World Candies and Necco were selling a chalky white version similar in size and coloring to what mom and dad would smoke daily. Parents weren’t particularly concerned with the candies at their time of launch, because smoking was commonplace. Some brands such as Just Like Dad! began using slogans such as “reach for a pack, just like daddy.” 

Early brands and products had names modeled after real cigarette companies in a shockingly accurate fashion. Viceroy became Viceyo, Marlboro became Marboro, Camel became Acmel, and Winston became Winstun. What’s more, the packaging mimicked real cigarettes as well, so that these mint-flavored candies almost perfectly matched their adult counterparts. 

For large tobacco companies, it was free marketing directed at consumers who could potentially grow up to become full-fledged smokers, unfettered access to grooming customers who would have brand loyalty for years to come. 

Science shows that the earlier a child is exposed to a brand, and has good connotations with that brand, the higher chance they have of being a life-long consumer. “Early on, when a kid is 3 or 4, it’s all about comfort and fun,” said Joel Ehrlich, senior vice president of advertising and promotions for DC Comics and Warner Bros. consumer products in Adweek back in 2003. “They will remember if they enjoyed a toy or whether the restaurant had a playground.” 

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 “A kid is going to say the apple juice out of the fun, colorful bottle tastes better,” Ehrlich added. “When they’re young, they’re much more impressionable about the experience.” How it tastes doesn't matter as much. That's for when they're older.

There were times when the cigarette companies did occasionally hit back at the candy companies. In 1928, the American Tobacco Company, maker of Lucky Strike cigarettes, took issue with "Lucky Smokes," a candy look-alike. Despite some tobacco companies sending samples of their packaging to candy companies so they can design their mimicry just right, tension began to build between the two industries. It reached a fever pitch when this slogan 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 called the packaging mimicry "an indirect form of advertising aimed at children."

However, as awareness of the dangers of smoking began to increase, so did the scrutiny that candy cigarettes faced. People began to complain about the dangers of normalizing tobacco use at such a young age, and the discussion about banning the chalky candy began. 

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North Dakota banned the sale of them from 1953-1967, with the United States considering a national ban on candy cigarettes in 1970 and 1991, but in the end, neither came to fruition. Not long after the 1970 bill consideration, however, the word “cigarette” disappeared from candy cigarette packaging, replaced by the more modest “sticks.” This way, candy companies could still sell products that implied comparisons to cigarettes, a legal loophole that worked like a charm. 

Other candies were also beginning to emerge that mimicked tobacco products as well. In 1980, Big League Chew hit the shelves, and any child of the 80s, 90s or early 00’s who played T-ball knew, this shredded bubble gum was the apex of cool. It was a favorite dugout snack, and an imitation of the chewing tobacco baseball players sucked on throughout games. Portland Mavericks left-handed pitcher Rob Nelson and batboy (and future filmmaker) Todd Field created the shredded bubble gum in an aluminum foil package, and they later pitched it to the Wrigley Company.

Big League Chew, much like chewing tobacco at the time, was in a pouch, further pushing the illusion that those who were consuming the gum were using the real stuff-even the slogan of the brand was “you’re in the big leagues when you’re into Big League Chew,"  since updated to "The Hall of Fame Bubble Gum," bearing an official endorsement from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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Candy cigarettes and Big League Chew showed how candy companies could fly under the radar while basically marketing tobacco to underage kids. It seems dramatic to argue that they're somehow responsible for causing children to grow up as smokers, but both products teach kids about the act of smoking or to associate chew with the good times you had when you’re younger. 

In a 2007 study that surveyed 25,000 people, researchers at the University of Rochester found that respondents who consumed candy cigarettes as kids were roughly twice as likely as those who hadn’t to report that they later became smokers. Truth Initiative (a nonprofit dedicated to educating children about the harmful effects of smoking) CEO Robin Koval, 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."

Most smokers start before they're 18, and the age between when I had my first candy cigarettes and packed my first lip with my college roommate felt like a blink of an eye. Admittedly, it's hard to determine what inspired me to pick up the bad habit, but all the Tarantino movies I was watching from a young age didn’t probably help. 

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It makes sense that the use of these products has groomed a younger generation to accept tobacco into their lives. Despite knowing all of the harmful effects, brand loyalty, as well as sense memory, can overpower our better judgment. How can anything we consumed as kids not affect the way we interact with real tobacco products? 

With candy cigarette companies utilizing slogans, packaging cues, and color schemes of their adult counterparts, children were getting into the habit of connecting those prompts with a fond memory. Sure, a 100% dissimilar taste, but a positive association.

Today, candy cigarettes can be tricky-though, not impossible-to find, only now we refer to them as “candy sticks.” Big League Chew is still readily available to find in most grocery stores, although you may not find it in the dugout as often. As people have become more and more savvy to harmful tobacco use, the less common it has become for people to support or pass out these candies. 

In the end, the most impressive thing about the history of candy cigarettes is that during a time when we cracked down on how we advertised tobacco, these two products still found wide circulation and a seemingly harmless accessory to an early chilly morning where we imitated the likes of our cinematic heroes.

It’s a quick leap between pretending to smoke and becoming a smoker, just what the major tobacco companies were counting on. 

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