Smoking hazards

October 21, 2007

Baltimore officials are aggressively going after smoking products they think are causing particular harm in the city. Their efforts - to regulate cigarettes that pose an enhanced risk of fire and reduce consumption of little cigars that have become popular among young African-Americans - are a justified and welcome response to a couple of related public health issues.

A study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that cigarettes sold in Maryland are considerably more likely to cause fires than those sold in states such as New York and California that have stricter safety standards. Locally sold cigarettes tend to burn to the end, unlike more fire-safe cigarettes that go out if they are not being smoked. Over the last decade, smoking-related incidents have been a leading cause of fire deaths here.

The General Assembly has passed a law requiring that only fire-safe cigarettes be sold in Maryland, but it doesn't take effect until July. Mayor Sheila Dixon and Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein want to jump out in front of the state with a city regulation largely because of the Cecil Avenue house fire last May - started by a lit cigarette - that resulted in eight deaths, including five children.

On another front, city officials are also eager to spread the word that little cigars can be even more dangerous than cigarettes. These products are long and slim like cigarettes, but their tobacco leaf wrapping makes them subject to less-onerous regulation and taxes. They still pose a significant health risk, however, because they generally contain higher levels of nicotine and more tobacco than cigarettes.

It's particularly worrisome that little cigars have become popular among younger, urban African-Americans. A local survey recently found that nearly 24 percent of 18- to 24-year-old African-Americans reported smoking a particular brand at least once in the previous month. The availability of these little cigars in flavors such as apple and cream has likely contributed to their favored status among young people as well.

Whether or not the city's regulatory effort is successful, it can only help to raise awareness about the harmful effects of tobacco and tobacco products that go well beyond smoking.

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