By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
The Prince George's County Council adopted one of the nation's most sweeping restrictions on the sale of cigars yesterday, an effort to curb a growing trend among urban youths of using hollowed-out cigars to smoke marijuana.
The council voted 8 to 1 to ban the sale of single cigars, requiring stores to sell them in packages of at least five. The new law will also make it easier to charge someone possessing a cigar with a drug paraphernalia offense.
The action drew a threat of legal action by the Maryland Association of Tobacco and Candy Distributors, whose lobbyist said the council had overstepped its authority in regulating a legal tobacco product. A proposed state law to ban the sale of single cigars died this year.
The county measure's passage was applauded by local anti-drug activists and the county police and health departments. The law is aimed primarily at small cigars sold individually at convenience stores and gas stations. Such cigars are often marketed in youth-friendly flavors such as cherry, apple and lime and are sold for as little as 80 cents to $1.
Tobacco stores that specialize in cigar sales, and often sell high-end cigars for as much as $5 apiece or more, are excluded from the legislation's restrictions, as are other locations that are sometimes age-restricted, including golf courses, fraternal lodges, bars and restaurants.
Studies have shown that the cigars have become increasingly popular among young people in predominantly black communities and can be a gateway to a lifelong cigarette habit, said Kathleen Dachille, director of the Center for Tobacco Regulation at the University of Maryland School of Law. Dachille said many young people smoke cigars for the tobacco, but they can also be easily hollowed out and filled with marijuana.
She said requiring that cigars be sold in packs of five will raise their price enough to deter some young people, who will also balk at having to keep and store the packs.
"If we can prevent children in Prince George's County from initiating smoking with a very popular attraction, we may prevent a tobacco user from growing up," she said.
She said she thinks that Prince George's is the only jurisdiction in the nation to ban the sale of single cigars, but New York City and Rhode Island are considering similar measures. A similar law in Philadelphia was struck down by a court for other provisions. Baltimore is also considering new health regulations that would have the same effect, and a District law targets cigar products, such as wrappers, as drug paraphernalia.
Sylvia Quinton, who works with the Suitland-based Substance Abuse Treatment Education Prevention Network, said use of short fat cigars, often called blunts, to smoke marijuana has "become embedded in youth culture." Blunts make frequent cameos in rap music and movies.
She said the new law cannot stamp out the glorification of blunts, but raising the price might discourage some youths.
The law was opposed by tobacco distributors and the Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris. Last year, Altria bought the company that makes Black and Mild cigars, a popular brand for single sales, Dachille said. Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist for the distributors, said the intent of the law was "laudable." But, he said, the law will only create a cottage industry of people who buy cigars in packs of five and then sell them individually on the streets.
A spokesman for County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said he will sign the bill. Dachille and Quinton said they will again support a state law when the legislature meets in January.