The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning four tobacco makers to stop selling flavored cigarettes that the agency says are misleadingly labeled as cigars or “little cigars.”

These sales, says the FDA, violate the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which makes it illegal to sell flavored cigarettes (with the exception of menthol) but still allows the sale of other flavored tobacco products, such as cigars.

The FDA has asked the companies to respond to the warning letters within 15 days of receiving them. If they don’t correct the violations to the satisfaction of the FDA, they could face further action, including money penalties, criminal prosecution, and seizure.

“The law prohibited candy- and fruit-flavored cigarettes, but a number of tobacco companies made minor changes to these products and then marketed them as cigars to undermine the intent of the law,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, in a statement.

This is the first time the FDA has cracked down on the practice.

The products under scrutiny are sold in an array of flavors that appeal to young people, such as wild cherry, grape, and strawberry. They are manufactured by Swisher International, Cheyenne International, Prime Time International, and Southern Cross Tobacco Company and sold under the brand names Swisher Sweets, Cheyenne, Prime Time, and Criss-Cross.

According to their websites, Southern Cross Tobacco sells a variety of tobacco products, including cigars, e-cigarettes, and pipe and cigarette tobacco, and Prime Time sells cigars and pipe tobacco. Swisher and Cheyenne "are cigar companies and don't even make cigarettes," according to Craig Williamson, president of the cigar trade group Cigar Association of America, who says he represents both companies.

What Is a Little Cigar?

To the untrained eye, little cigars look virtually identical to cigarettes. They are about the same size and shape, and both can have filters. But cigarettes are wrapped in white paper, and cigars are wrapped in tobacco leaf or in brown paper that must contain at least two-thirds tobacco by weight, according to the Cigar Association of America. Little cigars are also generally less expensive than cigarettes and can be sold individually.

Despite all of the similarities, some people perceive cigars as less harmful than cigarettes, according to a 2012 study that called for increased monitoring of cigar sales as the FDA focused many of its enforcement efforts on cigarettes.

The FDA was able to crack down on the products cited in the warning letters because it classified them as cigarettes, not true cigars. The agency argued that “their overall presentation, appearance, and packaging and labeling” mean they are likely to be “offered to or purchased by” consumers as cigarettes. It's that nuanced classification that technically made the flavorings in violation of the 2009 law.

Williamson, of the Cigar Association of America, argued that the agency's crackdown is unfair. "The FDA is saying that if it looks like a cigarette, it's a cigarette—but that's not true," Williamson says. "Cigars are defined under federal law, and these products follow the federal definition. These are not cigarettes disguised as cigars."

Flavors Lure Teens

Myers applauded the FDA for initiating enforcement action against the manufacturers, calling it “an important step to protect our nation’s children.” But he also called on the FDA to go further and ban all flavored tobacco products from the market—including e-cigarettes, hookahs, and cigars.

Young smokers often choose such products because they “taste better” and are perceived to be “safer,” according to the FDA.

Cigarette-sized cigars are especially popular with high schoolers, according to a recent Surgeon General's report. And the many flavors they come in—including fruit flavors, chocolate, and mint—may be one reason.

A joint study by the FDA and the National Institutes of Health found that in 2013 to 2014, nearly 80 percent of current youth tobacco users reported using a flavored tobacco product in the past 30 days—with the availability of appealing flavors consistently cited as a reason for use, says FDA spokesman Michael Felberbaum.

“About 90 percent of adult daily smokers smoked their first cigarette by the age of 18,” Felberbaum says. And according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, “almost no one starts smoking after age 25.”

“That's why preventing teens and young adults from smoking is key—starting with the elimination of those tempting, flavored products that are frequently the initial attraction for a self-destructive habit,” says Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser Marvin M. Lipman, M.D.