By ERICH WAGNER
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 24, 2009)—Some Maryland lawmakers want to limit the sale of cheap cigars to packs of four or more in the latest attempt to curb smoking among young people.
Delegate Shawn Tarrant, D-Baltimore, introduced the bill to deter teen smoking and to ensure that teens are aware of the health risks associated with smoking the cigars, which he argued are marketed towards young people with fruity flavors and a 50 cent price tag.
Baltimore recently required that these cheap cigars be sold in packs of at least five starting in October. The Prince George's County Council passed similar legislation last year in an attempt to deter young people from smoking marijuana.
Pot smokers have for decades used the tobacco leaves from cheap cigars to wrap around marijuana, creating what is commonly known as "blunts." Tarrant said the marijuana factor only "slightly" influenced him to introduce the bill.
"My biggest concern is that people are smoking them legally and there's no surgeon general warning on the individual cigars," Tarrant said. "And because they come in flavors it's very appealing and it's marketed toward the youth."
Tobacco shops are exempt from the bill, as are cigars that retail for more than two dollars.
Tarrant brought city teens to testify at a hearing Tuesday in the House Economic Matters Committee about their experiences with the cigars. Sean Morris, a student at Baltimore City College high school, said the cigars target kids his age, with the various flavors and their position next to candy at checkout counters.
Robert Fiedler, a representative for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said that cigar use among young people has increased since the crackdown on underage cigarette use.
"What we're seeing is an unintended consequence of increasing the excise tax only on cigarettes," Fiedler said.
Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Baltimore's health commissioner, said Baltimore surveyed young people and found that more than 25 percent were smoking these small cigars because they are cheap, easily accessible and slow-burning.
"Because they're cigars, people can re-light them all day long, making them very accessible to kids," Sharfstein. "I very clearly remember one teenager saying, 'If I can only scrape together 50 cents, I can get a smoke to last me all day long.'"
Tobacco lobbyists argued that underage smoking is a matter of enforcement, not extra regulation, and that tax revenues would decline if the bill passes.
Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist with the Association of Tobacco and Candy Distributors, said the bill would just lead to people selling individual cigars illegally.
"People would just buy [the packs], break them open, and sell them individually on their own and make a lot of money," Bereano said. "People are entrepreneurial, people are very clever."
This bill, and a proposed amendment allowing local jurisdictions to further regulate the sale of cigars, would lead to a retardation of sales and a decrease in state tax revenues, Bereano said.
Tarrant called the tax revenue argument "smoke and mirrors." He cited Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot's written support of the legislation as proof that state revenue would not be affected.
"The lobbyists are using that as a wedge during a tough budget year," Tarrant said.
Tarrant originally introduced the bill last year, but it failed in committee. He said he has met with individual delegates since then and the bill has a much better chance of passing this year.
"One of the reasons it failed was it was their first time hearing it and a lot of them didn't experience this themselves in their own community," Tarrant. "This year they have their own stories to tell."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.