At gas stations in the District of Columbia, fuel is not the only popular product sold. Surprisingly, cigar products, such as the brand Phillies Blunts, are also amongst the fastest selling products at gas stations as well as convenience stores, and drug stores particularly in Wards 7 and 8 according to advocates.

This brand has become so popular that “blunts” have become a term of art for the entire category of cigar products often sold individually and in many cases to youth.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that day in the United States, approximately 3,800 young people under 18 years of age smoke their first cigarette, and an estimated 1,000 youth in that age group become daily cigarette smokers. The District suffers $626 million a year in health and other additional costs due to smoking and other tobacco products according to the American Lung Association.

For African Americans, while smoking rates remain conspicuously lower than those
for other adolescents, over the past 20 years, cigar smoking has increased. Public health advocates assert that this trend is due to the practice of youth purchasing and emptying out the insides of cigars and refilling them with marijuana and/or other substances. These concoctions, made popular through entertainers, have augmented tobacco use among urban youth.

The popularity of blunts and similar cigar products has also caught the attention of an interesting mix of health, environmental and civic leaders.

These strange bedfellows have the desire to find revenue for popular initiatives such as anti-smoking campaigns, health care centers, and green building programs,

particularly those targeting underserved communities.
They face common barriers. The DC Council and the Mayor have expressed reluctance to impose any new taxes or other fees, on anyone. Rather, municipal leaders in the District have opted for budget cuts, and reallocation of funding to support favored budget priorities.

While acknowledging it’s not a popular position, civic leaders like Villalreal “VJ” Johnson, are not afraid to call for tax increases in the nation’s capitol. “If you’re not going to find innovative ways of raising money, you’re going to have to raise taxes.

Cutting taxes hurt the people you’re trying to help,” said Johnson who chairs the DC Area Neighborhood Commission 7A that includes neighborhoods along Pennsylvania Avenue, Texas Avenue and East Capitol Street.

Thus, Johnson believes that the tax on blunts and other cigar products is a “creative way of generating additional resources without any backlash. There is no organized constituency of blunt users who could organize to say, ‘don’t tax the blunts,’” explained Johnson. However, in fairness, Johnson suggests that cigars sold at cigar bars should also be taxed so as not to exclusively focus on the poor.

While advocates have no firm estimate of how much the tax would generate for the District budget, a 2009 50-cent across the board cigarette tax increase was expected to generate $3.6 million a year in new revenue, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. In addition, advocates predicted that the cigarette tax would prevent more than 1,300 youth from smoking; save more than 600 residents from future smoking-caused deaths and produce $32.3 million in long-term health care savings.

However, smoking supporters contest whether the last tax increase generated the projected revenue in the District. Further, pointing to neighboring Maryland, the conservative group Americans for Tax reform asserts when the terrapin state raised cigarette tax $1 in 2007, sales dropped by 25 percent and there was a 254 percent increase in cigarettes illegally crossing state lines.

Dr. Pierre Vigilance, who led the DC Department of Health under the Fenty Administration, concedes that taxes on tobacco led to reductions in consumption. “Even if it’s not sustainable is still a good approach,” say Vigilance.

In his current post as visiting professor for Public Health Practice at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, Vigilance sees particular merit to the idea of using the revenue from tobacco taxes to fund environmentally friendly health facilities. Vigilance suggests that not only should any such funding stream support new development but he recommends that the funds also be used to support green renovations of existing primary care facilities like those operated by members of the DC Primary Care Association.

There is also precedence for setting aside any revenue raised by new tobacco taxes for health initiatives.

In a recent DC Council hearing, At-Large Councilmember David Catiania (I) who chairs the committee overseeing health agencies boasted that “unlike other jurisdictions,” funds received from the District through a deal between states and big tobacco companies over smoking illnesses were sequestered and set aside from the District’s general operating fund and used for community health centers and smoking cessation programs.

Catania also lamented the lack of funding in the District’s FY’13 budget for new anti-smoking initiatives and urged the District’s agency to find local dollars for these programs by cutting others if needed.

However, advocates such Bonita Pennino, a government relations director with the American Cancer Society prefers funding anti-smoking and similar health programs through creating new municipal revenue such as the blunt tax. “Tobacco control advocates would like to increase the tax on small cigars, snuff and chew tobacco,” says Pennino. In addition to the tax on blunts and similar products, Pennino recommends that revenue could also be raised through increase the tobacco retail license fees (currently $15/year) and raising the penalties for infractions for selling tobacco to minors and smoking in restaurants and bars. “Currently any revenue from these sources goes to the general fund,” notes Pennino.

If Pennino and this unique coalition of advocates have their way, the District will have a creative way of solving its budget woes, at least in part, by targeting a revenue stream taxes on blunts, which at the moment have few advocates.


Talib I. Karim

Special to the AFRO