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Tax hike on miniature cigars among host of new Maryland laws

At a corner store in Pigtown, the bad news spread that taxes on mini-cigars will jump more than four-fold, to 70 cents on the dollar.

"Oh, man, you know they're about to go up on cigarillos?" Shawn Mason, 32, told others lounging at the corner of Washington Boulevard and West Ostend Street on Thursday evening.


"It's cancer," a friend replied, shaking his head. "You're going to charge me more for cancer now?"

Health advocates say that's the point: to take candy-flavored carcinogens out of the hands of youngsters.


"Wild apple? Pineapple?" said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Maryland's health secretary, listing the varieties he found particularly designed for teenagers. "I mean, they smell like Bubble-Yum."

The new state law is among hundreds of statutes set to take effect Sunday, which isn't a moment too soon for state Sen. Verna Jones-Rodwell, a Baltimore Democrat.

"They way that they're marketed, the way that they're put out in the community stores, it seems that their audience is children — young children," said Jones-Rodwell, an advocate of the tax hike that will make Maryland's rate the 10th-highest in the country.

The single mini-cigars are among the biggest sellers at the St. Paul Food Market in Mount Vernon. The owners don't bother putting them in a display, leaving them lying scattered behind the counter instead. Their customers know the $1.10 cigars are cheaper here there than at chain stores, the owners said, adding that they require customers to provide identification to be sure they are 18 years old.

"They tell me what to get," said Sara Ahmed, who runs the store with her husband, Tauqeer. "They say, 'We need chocolate. We need vanilla.' And then we order them."

Tauqeer Ahmed said the mini-cigars weren't popular until the state's cigarette tax was raised to the current $2 a pack.

"Four or six years ago, no one wanted to buy these," Tauqeer Ahmed said.

Peter H. Fisher of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said decades of experience show higher prices will lead to less smoking by young people.


A recent survey by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene confirmed that, but it also showed that teenagers were increasingly lighting up the cheaper cigars. Teenage cigarette smoking declined between 2000 and 2010, the study found, while cigar use increased by 11 percent.

State officials estimate the higher tobacco taxes will generate $5 million in the first year, then project the revenue will decline.

"In a perfect world, we'd stop collecting the tax because everyone stopped smoking," said Gene Ransom, CEO of MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society.

Lawmakers and lobbyists said the General Assembly raised the mini-cigar tax to mirror that of cigarettes. The wholesale tax on smokeless tobacco doubled to 30 percent. Legislators left the tax for premium cigars at 15 percent, leading some in the mini-cigar industry to accuse the state of "economic discrimination."

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"People in urban areas, they have to pay 70 percent when they can hardly afford it, and those in the $1,500 suits smoking the premium cigars, there is no increase at all," said Bruce Bereano, lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Tobacco and Candy Wholesalers. "That is class warfare."

Those in the premium cigar industry contend teenagers don't want their higher-end products.


"You don't see a high-schooler or a middle-schooler standing on the corner with a $15 cigar sticking out of his mouth. It just doesn't happen," said Bill Spann, CEO of the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association, which represents 35 retailers in Maryland.

A friend introduced Brandon Alexander, 18, to the flavored mini-cigars before he graduated from Meade High School in Anne Arundel County this month. Thursday, he was drawing puffs from an apple-flavored cigarillo — his favorite — while reclining on a sidewalk at a loading dock at Arundel Mills mall.

"I don't like the plain ones," he said. "I don't like them without the flavor."

He furrowed his eyebrows after he calculated the new tax will nearly double the cost of his habit, but decided the higher price wouldn't make him quit.

"They're still not that expensive," he said.