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

While health advocates and others campaigners are concerned about the health of the entire community, activists such as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, like SAMSA seeks to pull out cigarette addiction by the root.

Research conducted by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids staff indicates that more than half of all young smokers usually buy the cigarettes they smoke, either directly from retailers or vending machines, from other young people, or by giving money to others to buy for them. About a third of them typically get their cigarettes from others (usually other youth) for free, and a small but significant percentage of minors get their cigarettes by shoplifting or stealing.

Where and how young smokers get their cigarettes varies from state to state or city to city depending on such factors as whether the jurisdiction strictly enforces the laws prohibiting tobacco sales to minors, requires retailers to keep cigarettes behind the counter, or has banned cigarette vending machines or restricted them to adult-only locations.

Across the nation, older young smokers are more likely to buy their cigarettes directly than younger smokers, who are more likely to get their cigarettes from others or by stealing. Some of this difference is because older kids typically find it easier to buy cigarettes than younger kids. But another powerful factor, Campaign staff point out, is that older youth smokers are more likely to be regular smokers, and regular smokers are much more likely to purchase their own cigarettes than kids who smoke less frequently or are only "experimenting." Not surprisingly, older or regular youth smokers who buy their own cigarettes are also major suppliers for kids who do not purchase their own cigarettes but instead rely on getting them from others.

The good news, said Susan M. Liss, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, is that youth smoking fell to record lows in 2013 for all three grades surveyed (grades 8, 10 and 12). There has been a significant annual decline over the course of the last three years which Liss said is a development that is highly encouraging after several years in which progress had nearly stalled.

The flipside, Liss pointed out, is a 2012 National Youth Tobacco Survey released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which shows that these declines in youth cigarette smoking are being partially offset by the growing popularity of other tobacco products, including cigars, electronic cigarettes and hookahs. In addition, there has been a significant increase in cigar smoking among African-American high school students since 2009; in 2012, 16.7 percent of African-American high school students smoked cigars, while 9.6 percent smoked cigarettes.

Marsiglia Gray said that while the 2009 Tobacco Control Act bans flavored cigarettes, there is no federal law banning flavored cigars.

In 2012, Mayor Vincent C. Gray, community activists and residents descended on local retail businesses in Ward 8 to encourage clerks and owners to stop selling drug paraphernalia. The group saw dozens of boxes of flavored cigars, which some customers use to smoke marijuana, loose cigarettes and hookah pipes, often used to smoke tobacco or marijuana.

“For the sake of a few pennies, they are selling the souls of our children to the devil,” said former D.C. Department of Health Director Dr. Mohammad N. Akhter. “Once they start smoking, they start using drugs and get involved in criminal activity, and then they end up in the justice [system] and in jail. And the community pays for all of those things in addition to what happens to the individuals themselves.”

“It’s much simpler for us to be able to prevent people from smoking and from doing drugs than it is to reach them when they are already in the middle of it.”