Cheap cigars facing city ban

Proposal targets sale of single small smokes popular with teens

May 29, 2008|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun reporter

Hoping to curb smoking among teenagers and prevent a lifetime of nicotine dependence, Baltimore officials are proposing a citywide ban on the sale of individual small cigars, sometimes called "blunts" or "loosies," in neighborhood shops.

If the public health proposal becomes law, Baltimore could be the first municipality in the country to attempt to improve residents' overall health by limiting their access to the potentially cancer-causing cigars.

"Hopefully, we can look back and know that we protected young people from ever wanting to smoke," said Mayor Sheila Dixon, who attended a news conference at City Hall yesterday to announce the proposal. The ban could be enacted relatively quickly by the Health Department, which has regulatory authority to protect citizens' health and safety.

The cigars, which have been popularized by hip-hop stars, pack more tobacco than a cigarette and come in flavors such as cherry and grape that appeal to a young crowd. It is this dangerous mingling of status symbol, sweet taste and high tobacco content that has city officials worried.

Sold under brand names such as Black & Mild, White Owl and The Game, the cigars are exempt from laws that prohibit the sale of individual cigarettes. Neighborhood shops sell the cigars, which can also be repacked with marijuana, for as little as 50 cents apiece.

And while cigarette use by teens and young adults has decreased in recent years, cigar smoking continues to be a "serious and growing health problem," said city Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein.

A 2007 study by public health researchers at the Johns Hopkins University found that nearly 24 percent of Baltimoreans ages 18 to 25 had smoked a small cigar within the past 30 days.

"This is an important step to make Baltimore healthier," said Sharfstein, who joined the mayor in introducing the proposed ban. "This is a small but important step forward."

David Sutton, a spokesman for the Altria Group, the parent company of tobacco industry leader Philip Morris USA, declined to comment on the specifics of the proposed ban until after company officials had reviewed it. Sutton said the Altria Group agrees with Baltimore officials that "kids should not use tobacco products." It is illegal to sell tobacco products to minors.

The Altria Group purchased the Black & Mild brand of small cigar in December 2007. Sutton said those types of cigars, which the federal government classifies as "large-mass, machine-made cigars," are growing in popularity.

Economic research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture backs up Sutton. Since 1998, small cigars have been the fastest-growing segment of the expanding cigar market. From 1998 to 2006, consumption of large cigars increased by 45 percent, while small cigar consumption increased by 154 percent. The most recent data show that in 2005, 14 percent of high school students were current cigar smokers.

Anti-tobacco advocates were quick to applaud the city's efforts.

"Like cigarettes, cigars are addictive and deadly, causing lung cancer, other cancers, heart disease and other serious illnesses," said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "The proliferation of individually sold cigars in recent years threatens to undermine efforts to prevent kids from smoking."

But not everyone was clapping. Some smokers complained that the ban might prevent them from feeding their nicotine habit. They said they often buy a small cigar when they don't have the money for a pack of cigarettes.

"What is this, a Communist country?" said Anthony Forbes, 37, of Dundalk.

Forbes said that although he prefers cigarettes, he sometimes smokes small cigars because they are cheap. "I don't like the idea" of a ban, he said.

But another smoker, Deborah Pitt, 45, of Baltimore, said she would support it because it could keep youths from smoking.

"It's a trend," she said of young people smoking small, fruit-flavored cigars. "But it's just not good."

Baltimore's proposed ban would require shop owners and clerks to sell the cigars in packs of five or more. City officials said that could discourage youths because a pack would be more expensive.

Wholesalers would be banned from selling the cigars in bins or boxes of singles.

The ban would not apply to cigar or tobacco shops, which are also exempt from the city's clean air law. "We're not saying you can't sell cigars," Dixon said.

It is unclear how long it could take to implement the new regulation. The city Health Department is seeking public comment on the proposal until July 1, including input from retailers regarding an appropriate start date.

City Council members, who have recently taken stands against trans fats and indoor smoking in public places, have expressed support for the ban.

"This is just a continuing effort, and the bottom line is that with the layering efforts of prohibitions on these products, people will eventually quit," said Councilman Robert W. Curran, who led the push to enact the city smoking ban. It was adopted in February 2007.

Similar legislation on small cigars introduced in the Maryland General Assembly this year died in committee.

Opponents argued that it was unnecessary because the state already prohibits the sale of tobacco products to minors.

Del. Shawn Z. Tarrant, a Baltimore Democrat who introduced the state legislation, said he hopes Baltimore is the first to adopt a ban on the sale of individual small cigars.

"We don't need to be in the business of encouraging young people to smoke," he said.

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