Off to the side of the stage during some summer and fall concerts at Merriweather Post Pavilion is something called the "Camel Casbah," an enclosed hut into which cigarette maker R.J. Reynolds lures smokers. Inside, visitors can have two packs of free cigarettes -- an effort, the company says, to get them to switch to their brands.
But concerned that such giveaways often end up in the hands of children, a Howard County Council member introduced a bill yesterday that would prohibit tobacco companies from distributing their products for free. If passed, the measure would make the county one of just a few jurisdictions in the state with such a law. And it could open another front in the legal war between local governments and the tobacco industry over where and how tobacco products are distributed.
Banning "freebies" has become popular in other parts of the country, from villages to the state of California, according to the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation. Locally, Takoma Park, Bowie and Baltimore have passed similar measures.
The bill's sponsor, Ken Ulman (D-West Columbia), said Howard should be next because of the Casbah. The point of the bill "is to help prevent minors from gaining access to cigarettes," said Ulman, who said he has support from three of the council's other four members. But manufacturers say Howard's legislation unfairly targets law-abiding citizens.
Children attending concerts at Merriweather were not only being admitted to the Casbah, said Glenn Schneider, the legislative committee chair of Smoke Free Howard County, but were in some cases recruited to go inside, where they were also given samples. The idea, Schneider said, was to turn them into lifelong smokers.
With all the free cigarettes floating around, Ulman said, constituents complained that "kids were sorting through the trash and the grass and finding packs that people had thrown away."
Over the last three years, tobacco companies have given away an average of almost 450,000 packs of cigarettes a year in Maryland, according to the comptroller's office. Anti-smoking activists fear that many of them are going to kids.
"There's a deep concern that as the tobacco companies look for alternatives for how they can distribute their products and get them in the hands of young people, they are going to intensify their efforts at these types of events," said Kathleen Dachille, director of the Tobacco Legal Resource Center at the University of Maryland School of Law.
David Howard, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., denied that the company gives cigarettes to children and said it goes to great lengths to keep kids out of the Casbahs it operates in cities across the country.
"This is a matter we take very seriously," he said. Only people 21 and older are allowed in, Howard said, and identification is checked as often as three times. Further, only smokers receive samples, he said, and to prove it they must have a pack of cigarettes already on them. "We do this to get adult smokers to try our brands in the effort to get them to switch," he said.
The company opens the Casbah only if a band that appeals to older demographics is playing, he said. "We would not be running our operation at a Britney Spears concert."
Howard said the company is adhering to the agreement reached between the states and the tobacco industry in 1998, which said that companies could give away samples as long as it was done in adult-only areas.
But even if the Casbah is off-limits to children, that only creates "an allure for younger kids," said Eric N. Lindblom, of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "Here is this cool, foreign place that you can't go. And it's all about smoking."
Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist representing the tobacco industry, said Ulman's bill won't get through without a fight. "The premise of this bill is absurd," he said. "They're trying to regulate and restrict adult activity in the use and consumption of lawful product."
Bereano has fought before on behalf of cigarette wholesalers. He worked against the recent attempt to ban smoking on sidewalks in Friendship Heights. And after some wrangling, Montgomery County killed a bill that would have fined people who smoke in their homes if the smoke wafted over property lines and bothered neighbors.
Anti-smoking groups have had some success. In the past three years, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have passed laws that require merchants to keep tobacco products behind counters and out of reach.