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Illicit tobacco sales targeted

The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore County Council is considering legislation to impose civil fines of up to $500 against stores caught selling tobacco products to minors.

Businesses already face criminal fines under a state law that prohibits the sale of cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and other smoking products to anyone under age 18. Under a bill discussed yesterday at a council work session in Towson, store owners would pay the county government a $300 civil fine for the first violation of the law and a $500 penalty for subsequent violations.

Stores would also be required to keep tobacco products behind the counter or in other areas out of customers' reach.

Several health officials and anti-smoking advocates testified at the work session in support of the measure, which they said would help reduce underage smoking.

"So much of our business unfortunately comes from people who have smoked cigarettes," said Christine Schutzman, who helps run a youth program at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson. "What I consistently hear is that they're buying their own cigarettes, they shoplift cigars and buy rolling paper."

Michael Strande, of the Legal Resource Center for Tobacco Regulation, Litigation and Advocacy at the University of Maryland School of Law, said that, with the imposition of civil fines for the sale of tobacco, stores would be treated similarly to businesses caught selling alcohol to minors.

He said six Maryland jurisdictions issue civil fines for the sale of tobacco to minors: Baltimore City and Howard, Kent, Montgomery, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties.

Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, said that authorizing the county health office to issue the fines would give county officials "greater opportunity for enforcement." He added that the county health office might be able to add resources using money from the Maryland Cigarette Restitution Fund Program.

The county's health officer, Pierre Vigilance, said in a statement yesterday he supports "any measures undertaken to protect and promote the public's health," and that he would work with the administration on how to enforce the anti-smoking measure.

Because five of seven council members sponsor the bill, it appears to have enough votes to pass.

Also yesterday, Councilman Vincent J. Gardina urged support for a measure to waive height restrictions and set-back requirements for an area of downtown Towson. Gardina, a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat, said he introduced the bill in part to allow a developer to move forward with plans for a 17-story apartment building at Washington and Susquehanna avenues.

And the council briefly discussed a bill that would boost the fine to $100 from $25 for owners of cats and dogs who fail to register their pets with the county.

The council is scheduled to vote on all of the measures Monday.

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