Monthly Archives: April 2012

Advocates Urge DC to Tax Blunts, Cigars to Fund Green Health Centers, Anti-Smoking Programs

By Talib I. Karim, Health & Tech Writer
For version published in the Afro American, visit

Tax on cigar-type products popularly called “blunts” may be way of funding green health centers, smoking cessation programs (

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.



Conversation with African American Leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) Series Morgan State University’s Dr. Eugene M. DeLoatch, Ph.D.

By Talib I. Karim, Health & Tech Writer

For version on the Afro American Newspaper visit

Dr. Eugene M. DeLoatch, Ph.D., Founding Dean, Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. School of Engineering at Morgan State University (Courtesy).

The 1960’s was a decade of firsts: the first heart transplant surgery was performed and the science fiction series Star Trek made its TV premiere. For African Americans, this period ushered in the first generation of those who dreamt of becoming engineers and scientists with the quest of putting men, and women, on the Moon, in real life.

Dr. Eugene M. DeLoatch was amongst those whom dared to dream of space travel at a time when Dr. King was working to ensure that African Americans could freely travel on earth.

When less than 0.5% of all engineers were African American, Dr. DeLoatch, the son of a paper mill worker in Nyack, NY, was inspired to follow his dream, and today stands as the founding Dean of the Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr., School of Engineering at Morgan State University as well as the Chairman of the Council of Dean’s of Engineering of the Historically Black College and Universities.  At Morgan State,  Dr. DeLoatch has spent the past 28 years producing a generation of engineers that have aided the nation’s leading tech companies as well as government agencies like NASA.

In an exclusive interview with the Afro American, Dr. DeLoatch gives advice to parents and students alike on how to turn dreams into reality.

Afro: What or who inspired you to become an engineer, and ultimately the Dean of Morgan State University’s School ofEngineering?

Dr. DeLoatch: There were two people.  I was a sophomore in high school when a teacher asked me had I ever considered being an engineer due to my love for mathematics and sciences.  It was then that I decided to become an engineer.

After high school, I got a track scholarship to go to Tougaloo College in Mississippi, which didn’t have an engineering program.  However, the school had a relationship with another college [LafayetteCollege] with an engineering program.  Thus, in five years, I had a mathematics degree [from Tougaloo] and an Electrical Engineering degree fromLafayetteCollege.

When I graduated, I got a job with an engineering firm inBinghamton,NYmaking more money [in a year] than my father made in 10 years.  There, a secretary, who wasn’t African American, asked me why weren’t there moreNegrosin [our] company as engineers.  It [the question] triggered something in my mind.  I knew a lot of people who were like me, who could be engineers but who did not know about [the field].  That’s when I decided to step up to the plate [to become an engineering educator].

Afro: You literally builtMorganStateUniversity’s Clarence Mitchell Jr., School of Engineering.  Tell me more about your school.

Dr. DeLoatch: I’ve developed a program that has produced a generation of engineers.  Today, we are the largest producer of African American Electrical Engineers in the country; every two years we are the largest producer of Civil Engineers in the Country.  Each year, we are ranked the third or fourth most productive of institutions graduating African American engineers overall (behind GA Tech, North Carolina A&T).  We produce 50% of all the AA engineers in the state of MD.

Afro: What is your largest department, where do many Morgan State University Engineering grads work after completing their studies?

Dr. DeLoatch:  Our electrical engineering program is our largest.  Lockheed Martin, the Navy, Department of Transportation, andMaryland state government are the big employers of our graduates.  Also, 25% of our students each year are opting for graduate school.  We have students at some of the top engineering doctorial programs in the nation including MIT and Georgia Tech

Afro: Some African American engineers complain about barriers standing in their way in the corporate world.   What isMorganState doing to train its students on how to overcome these barriers?

Dr. DeLoatch: I believe there is a problem; the glass ceiling is still there to some degree.  However, this is not an overnight process. If you don’t get the proper mentoring it’s going to be difficult to break that glass.  The way that corporations work, you have to have a champion [to advance].

Our hope is that more of our grads will move up the ranks as the need for a diverse population becomes more accepted in the corporate world. Currently 70% of all science and technical jobs are held by white males, yet they are 36% of population. This over-proportional representation of white males is not sustainable. The issue that I found when I came out of school in 1959 still holds to a lesser degree; today only 5% of all engineers are African Americans.

 Afro: What is the level of support that you get from the State versus the University ofMaryland atCollege Park?

Dr. DeLoatch: Our mission is to take young people where they are, and mold them into engineers.  That’s the difference between us andCollege Park which is oriented toward research.

The difference is also spelled out by the numbers, 900 vs 3000, our student population versusMaryland’s. Marylandcharges more tuition, and gets more money from the state.  This is one key reason Morgan has a much higher student faculty ratio.  Thus, our faculty has less time to dedicate to research, grant-writing, and other interests.

Afro: The University of Maryland focuses a great deal on training its students to become tech entrepreneurs, what courses and other programs do you all have in this area?

Dr. DeLoatch: We have a new degree program in the school of business that offers a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship.  Seminars [in entrepreneurship] are also available for our engineering students.  Some engineering students who get involved in undergraduate research also aspire to one day own their own business.  The big missing element in this equation is angel investing.

To solve this issue serve on the Board of Directors of the Maryland Technology and Economic Development Corporation, which is dedicated to funding start ups [out ofMorganStateand other institutions].  Yet, the capital we can offer is not close to what it has to be.  We have a long way to go as African Americans to learning the [entrepreneurial] process and getting access to capital.

Afro: In closing, what’s your elevator pitch to students, perhaps in elementary and middle school, and their parents, to get them excited about engineering careers?

Dr. DeLoatch:  I tell them this is a liberating profession. I say if you graduate from my school, you are likely to come out making $60,000-$70,000 [annually], much better off than those majoring in other disciplines who graduate with a degree and no job.  For parents, I say if we can get our young people into the stream of engineering study, they can come out making good money, pay taxes, and we don’t have to worry about the next generation from these students.  Yet, to succeed in engineering [like in other fields] people have to be able to believe in themselves.


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