Concerned about the long-lasting toll smoking has taken on the African American community, the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland is leading an effort to impose restrictions on access to tobacco products.
The caucus is pushing for Maryland to join a growing number of cities and states that have raised the age to buy tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, from 18 to 21.
“I think it is a bill that is long overdue,” said Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee and the bill’s lead sponsor. “There is no good reason for it to remain at 18.”
The decision for the caucus to include the anti-tobacco measure as part of its 2019 legislative priorities follows action taken by lawmakers in the District, New York City, California and Massachusetts in response to public health warnings about the effects of smoking and the increased popularity of e-cigarettes.
The proposed legislation also comes on the heels of a recent announcement that the Food and Drug Administration will impose restrictions to block the sale of flavored e-cigarettes to those younger than 18 and to eventually ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, which are especially popular among African American teenagers.
In Maryland, advocates have tried for four years to pass legislation raising the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products to 21. During the 2018 session, the bill stalled in committee.
The 2019 bill will be sponsored in the Senate by state Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), the new chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee. Her committee and Davis’s committee will probably hold hearings on the bill.
Kelley said she thinks the bill is more likely to pass because of the election last month of many younger progressive lawmakers, who may have an interest in addressing issues — such as smoking — that disproportionately affect minority and economically struggling communities.
Last year, Truth Initiative, a leading tobacco-control nonprofit, launched an ad casting tobacco companies that market in black and low-income neighborhoods as a social justice issue.
“Certainly a bill like this, if it gets to the floor, it should have a better chance,” Kelley said. “We’re going to work it hard.”
Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said this is the first year that the caucus has made the legislation a priority. He hopes the increased numbers in the caucus — there are four more African American lawmakers — will also help to move the measure forward.
Currently, six states have banned the sale of cigarettes to people younger than 21.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans are more likely than white people to die of smoking-related diseases (heart disease, cancer, stroke), even though they usually smoke less and start at a later age. Meanwhile, black children and adults are more likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke, according to the CDC.
“You see so many people dying of cancer,” said Barnes, who is working with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids to advance the measure. “It is our responsibility to do what we can to curb this. We know we will have a battle on our hands with the tobacco industry, but we’re trying to do what’s right.”
George Parman, a spokesman for Altria Group, one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of tobacco, cigarettes and related products, said in an email that the company supports federal legislation to raise the minimum legal age to purchase all tobacco products to 21.
He declined to answer whether Altria supports enacting laws at the state and local levels.
Davis said he expects a tough fight with from retailers who profit off the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products. Under this year’s bill, state analysts projected that the state would lose an average of $7.3 million a year in sales tax over the next four years. But they said the loss could be offset by fines and lower Medicaid costs.
“It may be a sleeper issue,” Davis said. “The Chamber of Commerce, the retailers, they are going to go in a tizzy.”
Tim McDonald is the public health director in Needham, Mass., the first town in the country to raise the legal age for buying tobacco products. He said proponents experienced similar resistance in 2005.
Thirteen years later, the adult smoking rate is 8 percent in Needham, compared with 18 percent statewide, McDonald said. The percent of high school students who have smoked has dropped from 13 percent in 2006 to 5 percent in 2016.
“If you push back the time of first use, the less likely they will become addicted,” McDonald said.
The proposed Maryland legislation, similar to that enacted in California, would not impose fines on underage smokers but instead target retailers who sell to underage smokers, Davis said. Neighboring Washington raised the tax on cigarettes as well as the purchasing age this year. The District’s law includes a $25 fine on underage smokers.
Janice Dawkins, 59, of Capitol Heights, started smoking as a teenager and wishes she could stop. Dawkins, who is black, said she thinks the bill is a good idea.
“Back then they didn’t talk about it being addictive,” she said recently, standing near the Prince George’s County Circuit Court as her 25-year-old daughter, Raynell, waved off a plume of smoke. “We just did it for fun.”
Doug Gottron, 62, a white attorney who was taking a smoke break outside the courthouse, said he started smoking when he was 17. Over the years, he stopped. But he picked the habit back up about three years ago, joining his colleagues on smoke breaks to discuss business.
Gottron, who puffed on a thin cigar that was the flavor of white chocolate truffles and Irish cream, said the antismoking measure should also apply to vaping, which is more popular among teenagers.
He said one of his teenage sons has never smoked a cigarette, but Gottron saw him puffing a Juul vape pen, an e-cigarette that comes with a vaporizer and pre-filled containers of nicotine liquid.
“I thought, ‘What the heck is this?’ ” Gottron said.
The proposed bill, which is still in draft form, will be the latest effort by the General Assembly to curb teenage smoking.
Earlier this year, the state increased the penalty for retailers who sell e-cigarettes to minors, raising the $500 fine for a second violation within two years of a first offense to as much as $1,000.
“We’ve got to do what we can to keep kids on the right path,” Kelley said. “Because once they’re hooked, they’re hooked.”
Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.