Candy cigarettes have been a controversial confection since they first surfaced in the 19th century. Banned in Finland and Norway (where only fish smoking is widely acceptable) as well as Ireland, Turkey, parts of Canada and Saudi Arabia, it’s obvious candy cigarettes don’t get much loving these days. The case against them is a handy one; if kids enjoy candy cigarettes, there’s an increased likelihood that they’ll eventually turn to the real thing. While cigarettes certainly aren’t sweet and the candy version wisely makes no trace of an attempt to emulate the flavor of tobacco, I can empathize with detractors. Once you get in the habit of holding onto something, it can be hard to let go. And aside from a narcotic, what else is a cigarette except a magic-wand that makes the perennial issue of where to put those big mitts disappear?
Well, better a tube of sugar and cornstarch than a tube of carcinogens, though aside from the packaging, I’m a little disappointed to say that candy cigarettes leave a lot to be desired. Maybe it was the danger of their pariah status as I was growing up and fact that my own mother never let me have any, but I always imagined candy cigarettes to be a kind of ultimate, decadent candy experience, like the Lindt balls or Toblerone bars that I only ever got to have around Christmas, or sundaes with crème-de-menthe. In my youth, it was a special breed who chewed candy cigarettes, see, and they always made it look appealing.
So what’s the rumpus? Chalky (almost antacid like in consistency), white, mottled tubes, about the length of your garden variety death-stick and much skinnier. The taste? Well, sweet. Pure sugar, mitigated by something blander and chalkier (presumably the cornstarch) and vaguely minty at times. The business end is dyed red, which is a cute touch but doesn’t help the flavor (or the outrage of those who would can them).
The bubblegum variety are little better, though in size and appearance they’re much closer to the real thing, due in large part to the wrap-and-filter color coding of the wrapper they’re packaged in. After peeling this off (which was harder than it should have been) I popped the gum in my mouth and got to chewing. The flavor was equally subdued and the gum seemed to go prematurely stiff. Apparently it blows great bubbles, though I can’t confirm because I’ve misplaced the pack.
I’ve read a lot of glowing reviews of candy cigarettes out there and while I disagree with the fond descriptions of the flavor, I realize that these little guys have more to offer than taste bud titillation. For many folks, (myself included) candy cigarettes are a part of a life narrative; a personal history that goes way deeper than matters of the palette. It’s all there on the packs. “Victory” in bold type, a scarlet ribbon and a hand holding a blazing torch. “Round Up” written in knotted curlicues that look like rope, featuring a mustached cowboy on his faithful steed. “Stallion” with two of the same, muscled and galloping. “Lights” with a lucky golden horseshoe. “Kings” with its crown etched on a deep red background. And “Target” with its big bull’s-eye or rising sun. This is the stuff that the dreams of youth are made of. Big, iconic, ferociously emulating adulthood. Super-serious, but playful too. Above all, this is nostalgic candy, maybe the nostalgic candy. And like youth, it’s flawed, sweet, bland, fun, happy and sad. And like memory it might not satisfy your appetite, but it’ll give you something to think about. And it’ll give you something to do with your hands.