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Allow local governments to set standards on tobacco | READER COMMENTARY

Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, Health Commissioner for Baltimore City, speaks during the announcement of COVID-19-related restrictions including the closure of bars and restaurants last December. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, Health Commissioner for Baltimore City, speaks during the announcement of COVID-19-related restrictions including the closure of bars and restaurants last December. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/Karl Merton Ferron)

Given the current COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating impact on the lungs, curbing tobacco use, especially among our kids and the Black community, is more important than ever. I wholeheartedly agree with the recent editorial (”Want to protect kids from tobacco? Let Maryland’s local government set standards, too,” Feb. 22) that argued tobacco is not adequately regulated in our state and that the proof is in the terrible public health impact.

Each year, 7,500 Marylanders die from tobacco-related causes — equal to the approximate number of Marylanders who have died from COVID-19 — and currently, 23% of Maryland high school students use electronic smoking devices. In Baltimore, there are a staggering 1,600 tobacco retailers, the most in the state. It is no coincidence that the prevalence of tobacco usage in Baltimore is one of the highest in the state, and likewise, the city has some of the highest rates of morbidity and mortality associated with tobacco use. What’s more, in Maryland, Black men are more likely to be diagnosed with and die of lung cancer than any other demographic group and they suffer heart disease at a rate 56% higher than white Marylanders due, in part, to tobacco use.

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Historically, Maryland has been a leader in tobacco prevention and control — putting into action some of the strongest, most innovative and effective tobacco control policies in the country. From that experience, we know that each level of government brings its strengths to the table. Strong local laws like we have seen here in Baltimore serve as an example of good public health policy and can be a catalyst for transitioning social norms about tobacco use statewide. But innovative local laws alone are not enough to tackle burgeoning tobacco usage rates across Maryland — especially among flavored tobacco products.

Senate Bill 177/House Bill 134 are critically important bills being considered in the Maryland General Assembly that would remove all flavored tobacco, including menthol cigarettes, from the market. This statewide action is essential in scaling-up a proven policy that protects our kids and improves public health.

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While I strongly urge passage of this lifesaving legislation, I agree “it should not preclude local governments from looking out for the health and welfare of local residents, especially their children.” Accordingly, I also strongly support Senate Bill 378 authorizing Baltimore to enact and enforce local laws regulating the sale, distribution and packaging of tobacco and tobacco-related products. Reversing tobacco preemption in Maryland and ending the sale of flavored tobacco are two policies with the same goal: protecting the health and futures of our youth from Big Tobacco’s predatory tactics. Both should have the support of the our state lawmakers.

If combined through partnership, state and local tobacco control and prevention laws can be a powerful vehicle to accomplish what could not be done separately, for the betterment of Baltimore and all Maryland.

Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, Baltimore

The writer serves as Baltimore’s Commissioner of Health.

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