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, cigar smoking has increased in large part due to the trend of youth purchasing and emptying out the insides of cigars or “blunts” and refilling them with marijuana or other substances. These concoctions have been made popular through music and videos.
Blunts and similar cigar products have also caught the attention of health, environmental, and civic leaders.
In common, these somewhat strange bed-fellows have the desire to find revenue for 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, District municipal leaders prefer budget cuts, and moving around funds to support favored 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 [and programs] 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 [to fund needed government programs] without any backlash. There is no organized constituency of blunt users who could organize to say, ‘don’t tax the blunts,’” explained Johnson.
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, and produce $32.3 million in long-term health care savings, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
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% and there was a 254% 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 lead to reductions in consumption. “Even if its not sustainable [taxing blunts and similar products to pay for health construction, anti-smoking programs] is still a good approach,” say Vigilance, currently Visiting Professor for Public Health Practice at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.
Vigilance sees particular merit to idea of using the revenue from tobacco taxes to build new environmentally friendly health facilities or upgrade existing 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 set aside and used for community health centers and smoking cessation programs.
Cataniaalso lamented the lack of funding in the District’s FY’13 budget for new anti-smoking initiatives and urged the District’s health agency to find local dollars for these programs by cutting others if needed.
However, advocates such Bonita Pennino, with the American Cancer Society prefers funding anti-smoking and similar health programs through creating new municipal revenue such as the blunt tax. In addition to the tax on blunts and similar products, Pennino recommends that revenue could also be raised through “increasing tobacco retail license fees (currently $15/year) and raising the penalties for infractions for selling tobacco to minors and smoking in restaurants and bars.”
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.