Maryland County Bans Sales of Single Cigars

Published April 1, 2009

Prince George’s County in Maryland has taken the war on drugs a step farther by banning the sale of single cigars in convenience stores, pharmacies, and gas stations.

The ban is partly an attempt to stop young adults from stuffing cigars with marijuana. New York City officials and Rhode Island lawmakers are watching the Prince George’s ban with an eye toward enacting their own versions.

The Prince George’s council has ordered private business owners to stop selling single cigars and instead sell them at least five in a pack. The Maryland Association of Tobacco and Candy Distributors argues the council overstepped its authority in regulating a legal tobacco product.

The ban is not aimed only at restricting marijuana users. It’s also meant to deter young adults from smoking tobacco, proponents say. Supporters of the ban reason the rise in the price of cigars will deter younger people from smoking. However, the ban also hits legal smokers with a cost increase.

Could Backfire

Experience elsewhere in the country suggests the Prince George’s ban could backfire. In Chicago, New York, and many other cities, high cigarette taxes have brought about “loose square men” who break up packs of cigarettes to sell them individually.

In Chicago, where local, state, and federal taxes add more than $4 to the price of a pack of cigarettes, some retailers in lower-income minority neighborhoods have been illicitly selling single cigarettes. Other “loose square men” operate on street corners, often selling single cigarettes for 50 cents each and no tax.

Selling cigarettes with no tax is illegal, but the loose square men take the risk because they can profit while helping lower-income smokers afford cigarettes. In many urban areas the selling of single cigars has begun in response to the same heavy tax burden that created single-cigarette sales.

Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Tobacco and Candy Distributors, said the intent of the law was “laudable” but added it will only create a cottage industry of people who buy cigars in packs of five and then sell them individually on the streets.

Darrell Moore ([email protected]) is a Heartland Institute staffer and writes from Chicago.