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Youths fume over cigar ban

The Baltimore Sun

Reacting to city officials' proposal to ban the sale of individual small cigars - more commonly called blunts or "Blacks" - Baltimore youths expressed anger and skepticism, saying it probably wouldn't dissuade them or their friends from using tobacco products.

Many youths expressed a desire to smoke the cigars, which eases their minds and helps them relax, they said. They aren't concerned with long-term health risks, they said, because, like generations before them, they believe they will be able to quit whenever they want.

"I ain't worried about no cigar," said Reginald McCullough, 22, of East Baltimore. "It's hard out here. Sometimes you need a cigar."

Older adults say they also smoke the small cigars but that they are more likely to smoke them when they can't afford a pack of cigarettes. Many older adults said they smoked the cigars when they were younger. Some expressed surprise that city officials are only now learning about the cigars, which can be hollowed out and used to smoke marijuana.

"I started smoking them when I was 20," said Renee Silver, 30, who has four children. She still smokes the cigars from time to time because she enjoys them, she said. "The wine one, it tastes good," Silver said. "It has a smooth flavor."

City officials announced Wednesday that they want to ban the sale of single small cigars, which sell under brand names such as White Owl, Black & Mild and Phillies. The cigars are exempt from laws that prohibit the sale of single cigarettes and are growing in popularity, especially among young people.

The ban would not affect cigars that sell for $2 or more apiece.

Mayor Sheila Dixon and Health Commissioner Joshua M. Sharfstein have vowed to require that the small cigars be sold in packs of five or more, which that they say could make it more difficult for youths to buy the cigars because they would be more expensive.

Sold individually, the cigars don't carry health warnings.

"Across the country, cigarettes cannot be sold individually without health warnings," Sharfstein said when the proposed ban was announced. "This proposal applies a similar standard to cigars."

Warnings about lung cancer and other illnesses caused by smoking probably won't persuade McCullough and others interviewed near liquor stores, a youth center and a public school to stop smoking.

For them, the small cigars are a cheap way to cope with the urban noise around them. The cigars, which come in flavors such as mango and blueberry, are sold at corner shops across the city for 65 cents to $1.25.

If a youth is too young to legally purchase the cigars - shop owners are supposed to check identification to make sure the purchaser is at least 18 - it is easy to get an older friend to buy them.

"I smoke them every day," said Chazo Ozai, 16, a city high school student. "I just ask someone to buy them for me."

Ozai's friend Jamal Williams, who is 18 and also a high school student, said he, too, smokes the small cigars, which have more tobacco than cigarettes and are the fastest-growing segment of the expanding cigar market.

Williams, wearing baggy jeans, a long T-shirt and elaborate gold fronts on his teeth, said it is common for high school students to smoke the cigars, which he said are a status symbol and stress-reliever.

"They relax your mind," Williams said. "They take away the stress."

Many of the youths interviewed said it is common to put marijuana into the cigars. They said one brand is preferred over others because its cigars burn more slowly, prolonging the high.

Asked whether he worries that the cigars could cause health problems, Williams shrugged and said, "The only thing it messes with is the respiratory system."

Many youths expressed anger that the city wants to ban something that they view as inconsequential. Officials should focus on crime, homelessness, vacant houses and the high cost of gasoline, they said.

McCullough, who is from East Baltimore, said he has been unemployed for eight months. He has worked in landscaping and has good references, but that isn't enough, he said.

"I can't even get a job," he said. "Why are they focused on cigars?"

Smoking isn't popular with all youths. Many said they don't smoke, and half-sisters Ericka and Cierra said they argue over smoking. Cierra, 17, said she hates it when Ericka, also 17, smokes "Blacks."

"It is not cute," Cierra told Ericka. The girls did not want to provide their last name for fear that their parents would find out that Ericka smokes. "Your lungs will be black and I will not come to your funeral," added Cierra.

Ericka said she is not concerned about her health. She enjoys smoking the cigars, she said, because they help her unwind after school. She got dizzy when she started smoking the cigars but now has no problems, she said.

"I'm no rookie," she said, adding that she smokes the cigars with her best girlfriend outside, "they calm my nerves."

"She doesn't listen to me," said Cierra, a senior in high school. "We have this argument every day."

Ericka, like most of the youths, said the low price of the cigars makes them attractive. She said she sometimes buys Dutch Masters cigars for $1.25, which is within her budget.

But the high school junior said that if she had to buy a five-pack of Black & Mild cigars at $4 or more, she might think twice.

"I'd probably stop smoking," she said.

That is what city health officials are hoping for.

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