Smoking memo

Our view : Comptroller belatedly gets little cigar issue right

July 10, 2008

Fortunately for Baltimore's anti-smoking efforts, the concept of legal pre-emption just got pre-empted by the state comptroller.

At issue was whether the city - or any other local government, for that matter - can restrict the sale of little cigars or "blunts" to packs of five or more. The goal of Mayor Sheila Dixon's proposal is to help keep them out of the hands of youngsters who tend to buy them individually.

Last week, a lawyer in Comptroller Peter Franchot's office wrote a letter warning that the concept didn't pass legal muster. Her argument? Pre-emption: The General Assembly had reserved the right to tax and regulate tobacco to the comptroller's office.

Funny thing, though: Her boss actually supports the mayor's proposal and - after the letter was brought to his attention by a Sun reporter - pulled it back and asked for a formal opinion from the state attorney general's office. The verdict? There's no law saying local governments can't enact health regulations related to cigars, just as they've adopted smoking restrictions.

The episode may have been a bit embarrassing for Mr. Franchot, but the outcome was for the best. Thanks to the opinion, the city's proposal, if approved, looks likely to withstand legal challenge from the tobacco industry.

Still, any local ban on individual sales of blunts is no cure-all for the problem. Little cigars ought to be taxed and regulated as what they really are, oversized flavored cigarettes. That means not only restricting sales to five-packs or more but also raising the tax on them by several-fold.

State lawmakers failed to take that necessary action during their annual 90-day session this year. As a result, little cigars continue to be a cheap (less than 70 cents apiece) temptation for underage smokers, particularly in poor neighborhoods.

Mr. Franchot's office may have initially goofed by misstating the law, but so did the General Assembly when members chose not to crack down on little cigars. At least the comptroller has made amends. Next January, it's the legislature's turn.

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