BALTIMORE - At Everest Greenish Grocery, a brightly lit store on a faded corner of this city, nothing is more popular than a chocolate-flavored little cigar. They are displayed just above the candy bars, along with their colorful cigarillo cousins: white grape, strawberry, pineapple and Da Bomb Blueberry.
And they were completely sold out by 9 one recent evening, snapped up by young people.
"Sorry, no more chocolate," the night clerk, Qudrad Bari, told a young woman with a fruit drink.
In 2009, Congress passed a landmark law intended to eliminate an important gateway to smoking for young people by banning virtually all the flavors in cigarettes. Health experts predicted that the change would lead to deep reductions in youth smoking. But the law was silent on flavors in cigars and a number of other tobacco products, instead giving the Food and Drug Administration broad discretion to decide whether to regulate them.
Four years later, the agency has yet to assert that authority. And flavored cigars and cigarillos, including some that look like cigarettes, line the shelves of convenience stores and gas stations. FDA officials say they intend to regulate cigars and other tobacco products, but they do not say how or when. Smoking opponents contend that the agency's delay is threatening recent progress.
Cigarette sales are down by a third over the past decade, according to federal data, but critics of the agency say the gains are being offset by the rise of cheaper alternatives. Cigar sales have doubled over the same period, and their flavored varieties are smoked overwhelmingly by young people. Loose tobacco and cigars expanded to 10 percent of all tobacco sold in the United States in 2011, up from just 3 percent in 2000.
"The 20th century was the cigarette century, and we worked very hard to address that," said Gregory N. Connolly, the director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Now the 21st century is about multiple tobacco products. They're cheap. They're flavored. And some of them you can use anywhere."
The FDA is now wrestling with how to exercise its authority. In recent weeks, it sent warning letters to several companies that it says are disguising roll-your-own tobacco as pipe tobacco, a practice that industry analysts say has become a common way to avoid federal taxes and FDA regulation.
"The giant has finally awoken and hopefully will do its job," said Ron Bernstein, the chief executive of Liggett Vector Brands, a cigarette producer.
Mitchell Zeller, 55, a public interest lawyer who became the director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products this spring, acknowledged in an interview that the emergence of new tobacco products meant a new look was needed.
"What we've seen in the past 10 years is this remarkable transformation of the marketplace," Zeller said.
But new rules have to be grounded in scientific evidence, he said, and written to withstand legal challenges. The tobacco industry won a recent court fight against graphic images on cigarette labels.
As for the criticism that the agency has been slow to act, Zeller said, "Message received."
But the FDA's careful approach exasperates smoking opponents.
"We shouldn't need 40 years of study to figure out that chocolate- and grape-flavored cigars are being smoked by young people," said Matthew L. Myers, the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.