xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Want to protect kids from tobacco? Let Maryland’s local government set standards, too | COMMENTARY

Tobacco companies are increasingly marketing products other than cigarettes including e-cigarettes and flavored cigars that are popular among minors. In Maryland, it's legally questionable whether local governments can regulate the sale of such products. A bill pending in Annapolis seeks to clarify that counties and municipalities have that authority. (Baltimore Sun/Staff).
Tobacco companies are increasingly marketing products other than cigarettes including e-cigarettes and flavored cigars that are popular among minors. In Maryland, it's legally questionable whether local governments can regulate the sale of such products. A bill pending in Annapolis seeks to clarify that counties and municipalities have that authority. (Baltimore Sun/Staff).

More than a decade ago, Prince George’s County approved a couple of ordinances that effectively prohibited cheap cigars from being sold in quantities fewer than five. It was a narrowly crafted effort, exempting tobacco shops or cigars costing $2.50 or more. The idea was to protect younger customers who might show up at their local corner store and fork over 75 cents for a single sweet-tipped stogie. This would discourage such behavior. The state’s highest court subsequently struck down the ordinances as being in conflict with state law, casting doubt on the rights of local government to regulate tobacco in any form.

Now, there’s an effort in the Maryland General Assembly to clarify that counties and municipalities have the right to set tougher standards for the sale of tobacco in their communities.

Advertisement

Under legislation sponsored by two Democrats, Baltimore Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg in the House and Montgomery County Sen. Ben Kramer in the Senate, local governments are expressly granted the ability to enact and enforce tobacco laws that are more restrictive than the state’s. This covers not just cigarettes, cigars and pipe tobacco, but also all other tobacco products and electronic smoking devices. Local government could not make licensing decisions or raise taxes on tobacco. That would remain the province of the state. The measure even makes clear that its sole purpose is to overturn the Court of Appeals 2013 decision in Altadis, et al v. Prince George’s County.

The principle here is fairly simple. Local governments who are most attuned to the needs of their residents should be able to set tougher policies. For example, Maryland lawmakers are already debating a measure to ban flavored tobacco products. Use of e-cigarettes has been on the rise with young people and allowing menthol flavored vaping refills has a demonstrated appeal to African Americans. This statewide restriction may or may not pass (a similar bill failed last year) but under House Bill 1011/Senate Bill 410, Mayor Brandon Scott and members of the Baltimore City Council could decide that they’d like to set a higher bar to protect public health. They could weigh the health benefits versus the economic impact on licensed tobacco vendors, a formula that might seem somewhat different in neighboring Baltimore, Anne Arundel or Howard counties.

Advertisement
Advertisement

And to further the example, if some people object to the possibility of city government cracking down on tobacco sales — if there are fears that police might be used to criminalize the purchase of menthol cigarettes — then city residents would have a bigger voice in that choice, too. Mayor Scott and the City Council could decide not to set tougher standards or expressly prohibit enforcement of the regulation by police. Again, the more regulatory power is left in the hands of local government, the greater the say local residents have in how those powers are used. That’s a level of protection city residents don’t have when standards are set exclusively in Annapolis. Although it should also be mentioned that the bill’s sponsors specifically oppose any enforcement action taken against tobacco users; their legislation is intended to target tobacco companies and vendors.

Still, the proposal does raise a question: Is tobacco adequately regulated now? That’s an easy one. The answer is no, and the proof is in the terrible public health impact. About 7,500 Marylanders die each year from tobacco-related causes. And the financial drain on the health care system by tobacco use is substantial at roughly $2.7 billion every year. Most adult smokers started in their teens. And it’s become a particularly troubling issue for young people who are attracted to vaping and are far likely to use a flavored product than an adult. A 2020 government survey found one in four high school students used some form of tobacco product. Electronic cigarettes are by far the most popular with them. As the U.S. Surgeon General has noted, it’s a bad mix when a developing brain is repeatedly exposed to the heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, flavoring agents and nicotine contained in the heated aerosol produced by a vaping device.

The tobacco industry has long had much clout in D.C. and Annapolis but whether their lobbyists can be as effective in city halls and county council chambers is another question. There’s no denying that tobacco regulations are most effective when they are imposed nationally or at least statewide. But that shouldn’t preclude local governments from looking out for the health and welfare of local residents, especially their children.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement