This is What You Should Know About Bidi Cigarettes

Are bidis a safe smoking alternative?

Bidi Cigarettes. Image Courtesy of National Cancer Institute

A Reader asks:

What are bidi cigarettes, and are they a safe smoking alternative to traditional manufactured cigarettes with tobacco?

Bidis (pronounced bee-dees and also known as beedis) are small hand-rolled cigarettes made of tobacco and wrapped in tendu or temburni leaf (plants that are native to Asia -- Diospyros melanxylon). They are manufactured in India and other southeast Asian countries and exported to more than 100 countries.

In India, bidi cigarettes are cheaper and more heavily consumed than traditional commercial cigarettes. It is a common misconception that because they're less expensive, they're also less harmful.  Not so.

Cigarettes with Training Wheels

Referred to as cigarettes with training wheels by health authorities, the overall appearance and taste of this product is especially appealing to young people. 

Typically tied on one or both ends with bits of colorful string, bidis are produced in a variety of flavors that would appeal to kids, including chocolate, mango, vanilla, lemon-lime, mint, pineapple and cherry.

Bidi cigarettes gained popularity in the United States in the mid-1990s, and by 1999, there was a call to action against bidis by the State Attorneys General urging Congress and federal officials to stop the import of this toxic product geared specifically toward children. Young American smokers were attracted to bidis because they were easier to obtain than traditional cigarettes, provided a "rush" of nicotine, were small and flavored and looked like marijuana joints.

From Attorney General Tom Miller:

"Bidis are more damaging to health than traditional cigarettes, and they are flavored to make them attractive to children. That's a lethal combination."

Bidi consumption was drastically reduced in February of 2014, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered four brands of bidi cigarettes to be removed from the market because the manufacturers were not able (or were unwilling) to provide documentation that proves the products do not raise new or different health concerns for the general public.

  The brands are:

  • Sutra Bidis
  • Sutra Bidis Red
  • Sutra Bidis Menthol
  • Sutra Bidis Red Cone

This was the first tobacco ban put in place as a result of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act that gives the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products was in the United States. 

Bidis can still be purchased online, but have lost popularity here in the states since the ban.

Are Bidi Cigarettes More or Less Harmful Than Regular Cigarettes?

In some respects, bidis are more harmful than regular commercial cigarettes produced in the U.S.

  • Bidi cigarettes contain three to five times the amount of nicotine as traditional cigarettes.

Since they don't have chemicals added to help with combustion, smokers must draw on a bidi cigarette more often and with more force to keep it from going out. This results in higher levels of toxins breathed in than with traditional cigarettes. Smokers puff on a single bidi cigarette approximately 28 times as opposed to 9 puffs on a regular cigarette.

What are the Health Risks of Bidi Smoking?

  • The risk of heart disease and heart attack is three times higher for bidi smokers than nonsmokers.
  • Bidi smoking is associated with emphysema and increases the risk of chronic bronchitis by four times.

Bidi cigarettes are hazardous to human health and should not be thought of as a safe smoking alternative. Parents of kids in countries where bidi smoking is still prevalent should proactively teach their children early on about the dangers of bidi cigarettes and smoking in general.

Sources:
CDC Factsheet on Bidis and Kreteks.  U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services. Updated December 1, 2016.

FDA issues first orders to stop sale, distribution of tobacco products. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. February 21, 2014.

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