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By MIKE BOCK
ANNAPOLIS (March 30, 2012) -- Supporters of cigar tax increases say higher prices will be a disincentive for teenage tobacco use. But it's not clear if the increase will dissuade kids from smoking blunts -- hollowed out cigars filled with marijuana and smoked like cigarettes.
In fact, Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, D-Montgomery, hadn't even heard of blunts, and said they were not a big part of this year's tax hike discussion.
"That's not something I'm really familiar with," said Forehand, who has co-sponsored a number of anti-tobacco bills this year.
It's unclear how many kids are buying cheap cigars for the sole purpose of smoking marijuana. While there have been many surveys on marijuana use among teens, there is almost no empirical data on the methods of consumption, said Morgan Fox, communications manager of the Marijuana Policy Project.
Sen. Verna L. Jones-Rodwell, D-Baltimore, said cheap cigars flavored like grape and vanilla appeal to underage consumers, which could drive them to use blunts for smoking marijuana.
"Kids shouldn't be getting them anyways, but the flavors just make (smoking) more enticing," said Jones-Rodwell, who supported a bill that would place an outright ban on the sale of flavored cigars in Maryland.
The process of rolling a blunt isn't exactly common knowledge, but today's tech-savvy youth would have no problem figuring it out. Dozens of websites, such as smokingwithstyle.com and weedsmokersguide.com, have step-by-step tutorials designed for first-time users.
"I like blunts. I love to roll them and light 'em up. The high that a blunt gives you is tops," said "smellychronic," an anonymous member of stonerforums.com, an online marijuana smokers community.
Some lawmakers are aware of the practice. The Prince George's County Council recently banned the sale of individually wrapped cigars in an effort to curb marijuana use among teens, and the sale of flavored tobacco wraps -- or blunt wraps -- is illegal in Baltimore.
Supporters of the tax increase argue that additional disincentives are necessary because cigar use among teens has risen in the past few years. A 2010 survey from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene shows that 13.9 percent of high school students use cigars; by comparison, 14.1 percent smoke cigarettes.
A 2011 survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research found that marijuana use among American high school seniors is at a 30-year high. Almost 44 percent of high school seniors surveyed have smoked marijuana at some point in their lives.
Though marijuana advocates say the drug has many medical benefits, a 2008 study in scientific journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that mixing tobacco with marijuana might not be good for the user's health. In addition to health concerns normally associated with tobacco use, the study said smoking blunts can increase symptoms of cannabis dependence, such as smoking more frequently and smoking greater quantities than one normally would.
Kathleen Dachille, associate law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and director of the Legal Resource Center for Tobacco Regulation, Litigation and Advocacy, thinks that tax hikes could prove to be an effective way to stamp out cheap cigar purchases, since tax hikes in previous years have lowered cigarette use among teenagers.
"Youth are an especially price-sensitive demographic," she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report Thursday supporting the practice of increasing cigarette prices to dissuade teens from smoking. The report did not mention flavored cigars.
"Increasing the price of cigarettes reduces the demand for cigarettes, thereby reducing youth smoking initiation and cigarette consumption and decreasing the prevalence of cigarette use in the United States overall, particularly among youths and young adults," the report concluded.
But Mike Macareno, a manager at CVS in downtown Annapolis, doesn't think the tax increase will stop kids from smoking blunts. CVS has a store policy to verify the age of anyone who purchases tobacco products, but Macareno said kids who want to smoke blunts will simply find ways to work around higher taxes and limited access.
"Kids aren't dumb... (Higher prices) hasn't worked for cigarettes, and it hasn't worked for alcohol," he said.