D.C. Officials Crack Down on Cigarette Sales of 'Loosies'

Barrington M. Salmon | 1/15/2014, 3 p.m.
The District's Office of Tax and Revenue has been busy cracking down on owners and employees of retail businesses which ...
Courtesy photo

The District’s Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR) has been busy cracking down on owners and employees of retail businesses which sell single cigarettes.

Customarily, OTR inspectors conduct random cigarette inspections of District businesses at least two to three days per week throughout the year.  In 2013, OTR revenue officers performed 563 inspections.

OTR Spokesman Natalie Wilson said her department bears the responsibility for inspecting retail businesses across the District to ensure cigarette license requirements are met and to enforce cigarette stamp compliance. The department monitors the sales of unstamped cigarettes, sales of cigarettes with stamps from other states and the sale of loose cigarettes.

Last month, revenue officers levied a $5,000 fine on a retail establishment located along the 3100 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave., S.E., after they caught a store clerk selling single cigarettes.

Wilson said she couldn’t release the name of the store for privacy reasons but spoke of another case.

“While we were at a store a woman came in and asked for loose cigarettes, the merchant got really nervous, said they don’t do that at the store and got into a confrontation with the customer,” she said.

While the Office of Tax and Revenue focuses on the law enforcement side, some like Susan Marsiglia Gray primarily focused on the health implications.

“In general, we know that all users start in young adulthood. Ninety percent first smoke by age 18 and all do so by age 26,” said Marsiglia Gray, national SYNAR program coordinator for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA). “Young people are unlikely to be addicted if they aren’t encouraged to start. “Loosies” are more attractive because they’re cheaper. Youth are more price- sensitive so buying loose cigarettes is more attractive.” The SYNAR program gets its name from the late Oklahoma Congressman Mike Synar who proposed legislation to curb smoking.

Marsiglia Gray said the sale of single cigarettes is outlawed on the federal level and state laws do the same.

She said SAMSA remains committed to its efforts to change the way the public thinks about cigarette use.

“There are lot of different things that have to be part of a comprehensive program such as increasing the price, excise taxes, having a hard-hitting media campaign, reducing retailing access (which is one of the things we work on at SAMSA) and improving the Indoor Air Act.”

“We’re contributing to creating a new norm.”

Yet not everyone is convinced that OTR monitoring is the right way to go.

“The city’s starting to become a nanny state. Forcing people to buy a whole pack instead of one, why?” asked Ward 8 ANC Commissioner Anthony Lorenzo Green. “If (people) want one, why are we doing that? People are doing it for political reasons. How is it protecting kids if they can buy a whole pack? I’m not buying. It makes no sense to me.”

“If there are kids who are buying, we need to address the direct issues. It’s always been a problem. Some retailers are willing to break the law.”