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“Loosies”—a Looming Health Threat

By Greg Rienzi

In many urban areas, the widespread availability of single cigarettes known as "loosies" poses a significant threat to anti-smoking initiatives—and may be contributing to the high percentage of young adult African Americans who smoke, according to a Bloomberg School study published in August's American Journal of Public Health.

"We were somewhat surprised to see how prevalent the practice of loosies had become," says Frances A. Stillman, EdD, EdM, associate professor of Epidemiology and co-director of the Institute for Global Tobacco Control. Her team found "sales by many different types of people, from drug users and drug dealers, to friends and neighbors."

Typically, the single cigarettes are sold three for a dollar on street corners, though the survey also found evidence of sales within stores. The sellers, who presumably purchase the cigarettes legally, are able to recoup their costs and even turn a profit.

While anti-smoking initiatives such as high cigarette taxes, smoking bans in restaurants and workplaces, education efforts, and advertising restrictions have led to a decline in smoking rates nationwide, smoking is still pervasive in inner city areas, Stillman notes.

Recent data from urban neighborhoods in Baltimore indicate that more than 60 percent of young adults, ages 18 to 24, smoke cigarettes. African Americans tend to smoke fewer cigarettes per day, Stillman says, so loosies are a convenient and affordable way to purchase the high-priced tobacco products.

Stillman notes that young adults in urban areas who are unemployed, underemployed or economically disadvantaged are already a target market of a tobacco industry that pushes 2-for-1 sales and coupons that make it easier for them to afford the habit.

"They are trying to recruit new smokers and here is a legal population that is transitioning from school to work and living in a stressful environment," she says.

While the FDA attempted to ban loosies in 1996, current laws differ from state to state and enforcement is lax, Stillman says. It is illegal in Baltimore to sell single cigarettes.

The study concluded that smoking cessation initiatives need to take into account the sale of single cigarettes in order to effect better enforcement of cigarette sale laws. And education efforts should emphasize that even in reduced quantities, cigarette smoking still poses a danger to health.

"Communities need to buy in," says Stillman, "so that [individuals] can help in educating the entire community and developing plans to change these practices."