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Special Session Tax on Cheap Cigars a No-Go

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By Andy Zieminksi
Capital News Service
Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2007

ANNAPOLIS - State lawmakers increased taxes on cigarettes during the special session, but the loosie slipped through their fingers.

A provision that would have extended the new cigarette tax to some low-price cigars -- known as "loosies" because they can be sold individually or in packs -- was abandoned.

Supporters of the effort, which also would have prohibited the sale of single loosies, said it would have improved health in urban areas like Baltimore City, where brands like Black & Mild are popular among young blacks.

"We thought it was great. We were sorry that it didn't stay in," said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative.

But opponents said the legislation unfairly singled out the Black & Mild brand.

"We believe it's unfair to target a single tobacco product brand, to tax it differently than its competitors," said David Sutton, a spokesman for Philip Morris, which owns the Black & Mild brand.

The language was proposed by Delegate Shawn Tarrant and Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, both Baltimore Democrats.

It would have required retailers to sell the cigars, including the popular Black & Milds, in packs of five or more. Like cigarettes, they would have been taxed $1 per pack of five to 10 cigars and $2 per pack of 11 to 20.

The Senate passed a tobacco tax bill with McFadden's amendment, but it was stripped out in the House.

The bill signed Monday by Gov. Martin O'Malley raised the cigarette tax but makes no mention of loosies.

Tarrant said he was disappointed that the language did not make it into the final version of the bill, but that the House felt it was an issue better dealt with separately, along with a tax on moist snuff. He said he understands the reasoning and plans to bring the issue up again when the General Assembly meets in January.

"Of course I was disappointed" that the measure failed in the special session, Tarrant said Wednesday. "But I'll take a run at it again in January."

Tarrant acknowledged last week that the legislation targeted Black & Mild cigars because hip-hop culture has given them a wide appeal among underage smokers.

"Kids don't talk about other brands the same way. I'm not confused about who the culprit is," Tarrant said then.

Black & Milds contain pipe tobacco and come in flavors such as apple, cherry and wine. A single cigar costs between 50 cents and $1. A five-pack is about $3.

Tarrant said teens can smoke them in school without getting caught easily because they are fragrant. He said the cigars are also a popular choice for making blunts -- cigars emptied of tobacco and stuffed with marijuana instead.

McFadden said Philip Morris is not to blame for Black & Mild's popularity among teens and in rap music videos. Teenagers "are exploiting these products."

"Maybe it's not the intention of the manufacturer, but the bottom line is, that's what's happening," McFadden said.

Health officials say that teenagers who buy single Black & Milds might not be aware of the health risks because they would not see the warning label on the pack.

Frances Stillman, a Johns Hopkins researcher who has studied smoking trends among young adults in Baltimore, said some young people smoke Black & Milds like cigarettes rather than cigars, which are typically not inhaled.

"They smoke little cigars like cigarettes, inhaling. And the stuff is stronger," Stillman said.

But opponents of the proposed regulations said it is "very unfair" to increase the tax on loosies for everyone in the state because of a problem most pronounced in Baltimore City.

"This is not a taxation issue, it is an enforcement issue," said Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Tobacco and Candy Distributors. "And apparently it's an enforcement issue only in the inner city in Baltimore."

Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Josh Sharfstein, who supported the legislation, said he is confident the issue is not dead.

"My understanding from some of the sponsors is they want to deal with it in the regular session," Sharfstein said. "It's more of a postponement than a defeat."

Copyright 2007 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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