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Godfrey Brevard needs a smoke. It’s Thursday afternoon, and the Brightwood resident is standing inside a liquor store on Kennedy Street NW, looking to negotiate the sale of a single cigarette, or “loosie.” He’s short on dough and has gone all day without a nicotine fix.
The proprietor says the store sells cigarettes only by the pack. So Brevard tries to get a smoke off a passer-by—offering 50 cents for one, any brand, any length, any flavor.
“The going rate is 35 cents,” says Brevard. “But I was so desperate, I thought 50 cents would attract attention.”
Regulations regarding the retail sale of cigarettes vary from state to state, but D.C., Maryland, and Virginia all have laws prohibiting the sale of single, unpackaged cigarettes. But loose cigarettes have always been easy to find in the area—bodegas and hole-in-the-wall restaurants were eager to pop open a pack and sell the 20-piece contents individually.
On Jan. 1, 2003, however, the District added 35 cents to its existing cigarette tax, joining a handful of states that levy a dollar or more per standard-size pack. The change pushed the price of a pack up to roughly $5. At the traditional rate of a quarter for a smoke, breaking up a pack would no longer yield a decent profit.
So store owners have decided it’s not worth it to sell loosies anymore. “There are a few places that still sell them around this area, but police are cracking down—it’s illegal,” Brevard says. “And 25 cents times 20? You’re not making your money back.”
Public health advocates laud the demise of the loosie—when single smokes are neither affordable nor available, teenagers are less likely to smoke. “We know one of the best ways to reduce youth smoking is price,” says Cassandra Welch, national advocacy director of the American Lung Association. “The higher the price, the better.”
Those still willing to move the merchandise have mostly instituted a 100 percent price increase, to 50 cents apiece. But smokers are reluctant to plunk down a whole dollar for just two bones.
And it’s become much harder to track down the few loosie peddlers left, even in Virginia, where the tax tacked on to a pack of smokes is considerably lower than in the District. Inside Dr. Dremo’s Taphouse, on Clarendon Boulevard in Arlington, a glass display case offers lighters, packs of various cigarettes, and various tobacco advertisements. On the bottom shelf is a metal “Joe Camel” canister with a handwritten yellow sign affixed to its lid: “single cigz 50¢ each.”
Today the featured smokes are Pall Malls, but taphouse owner William Stewart says the brand rotates. “Usually Marlboros, Marlboro Lights, American Spirit, Pall Mall, Kool—everything but roll-your-own.” Stewart doesn’t know much about cigs, having not smoked one since the third grade, but he knows that his loosies aren’t big moneymakers: “We sell a few a night.”
Stewart says he mostly keeps them in his establishment for people who are trying to stop puffing but are willing to buy a smoke that costs as much as a lighter because they need just one with a beer. “Everybody is trying to quit something. Their resistance is lower when they’re here,” Stewart says. “But they don’t want to test their resistance with a whole pack.”
Dr. Dremo’s has been selling loosies for a quite a while, Stewart says, but he didn’t come up with the concept or the pricing—one of his staff members gets credit for that. “A lot of bartenders here go to other bars when they’re not here,” he says. “They see something and bring it home and say, ‘We need to do this.’”
Paul Singh, a co-owner of Holiday Liquors on Branch Avenue in Temple Hills, Md., says he is unwilling to put his shop in jeopardy by selling loose cigarettes. “It’s a mandatory law—and we do everything by the law,” he says. “We can only sell it if it comes like this”—Singh throws a handful of individually wrapped cigars in various sizes and flavors down on the counter to illustrate—“with a cover.”
“We do everything by the law,” Singh repeats. “And also, you don’t profit much by selling them.”
Many who continue to sell loosies do so not because they think it brings in a big chunk of revenue, but because it is a service their customers expect. “People ask me all the time, so I have them in case someone asks,” says mobile-convenience-store owner Shay.
On a Saturday afternoon, Shay has parked his big white box truck in front of a liquor store and a Chinese carryout in Northeast D.C. The truck is open in the back, revealing a plastic case filled with incense, soap, various snacks, and three Styrofoam heads modeling hats.
The roving-shop owner says the sale of loosies hasn’t dried up—the practice has simply gone underground. “They have them in that liquor store and that Chinese store,” Shay says, pointing to the two establishments behind him.
A friend of Shay’s, John, disagrees. “They’re harder to get because the police are cracking down, so people don’t want to sell them anymore,” he says. “But you can still get them in some places.”
Another man joins the conversation and confirms that the two stores in the background do peddle loosies, but, whereas they used to sell them to anyone, they now push them through a slot in the bulletproof partition only if the face on the other side is a familiar one. “They still sell them there, but they gotta know you to give them to you—it’s too much risk.” (Asked for loosies, both stores insisted that they sell cigarettes only in packs of 20.)
Shay doesn’t seem worried about the repercussions of selling loosies, but he does keep the one brand he carries, Winston 100s, out of his display case. He sells the Winstons loose for 50 cents apiece, but if you can scrape up $2 total, Shay would just as soon give you a whole pack, in the interest of moving product.
“I don’t really care to sell cigarettes,” he says. “I sell a lot of incense, black soaps—things that are healthier for you.” CP