Tobacco measures would raise taxes, limit sales 5% sales tax seems likely to be revived. General Assembly '91

March 06, 1991|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Evening Sun Staff

Almost everyone agrees that smoking is about to become more expensive in Maryland. It also may become more inconvenient.

A series of tobacco-related bills before the General Assembly call for higher taxes on cigarettes, restrictions or outright bans on sales from vending machines, and new taxes on snuff, cigars and pipe and chewing tobacco.

The measures were the subject of a hearing yesterday in the often smoke-filled House Ways and Means Committee, where health professionals pleaded for greater restrictions and taxes while tobacco industry and smokers' representatives cried foul.

Partisans on both sides agree that some sort of cigarette tax will be enacted, probably one that would restore an old 5 percent sales tax.

Vending machine restrictions have failed in the past, and lawmakers were skeptical again yesterday. But one opponent said the push for the restrictions was especially strong this year.

A bill by Del. Richard Rynd, D-Balto. Co., would restore the 5 percent sales tax that was eliminated for cigarettes in 1980. It also would impose a 15 percent wholesale tax on snuff, chewing tobacco, pipe and cigar smoke, and cigarette rolling papers.

Altogether, this would raise about $35 million and reduce cigarette sales by an estimated 12 million packs. About 450 million packs were sold last year.

Sales of the other tobacco products could fall by 20 percent, according to a legislative analysis based on the experience of other states that have imposed the tax.

Cigarette smokers now pay a 13-cent-a-pack state excise tax and a 12-cent federal tax.

Another bill, sponsored by Del. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George's, and Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-City, would increase the cigarette excise tax by 20 cents to 33 cents a pack.

This would raise an estimated $82 million to be split between state and local governments. The state's share, $76 million, would be devoted to health and education programs and crop conversion programs for tobacco farmers.

Legislative leaders, however, have been reluctant to target revenues to particular uses, and the 5 percent tax has been getting more support.

Health groups testified in favor of restrictions on vending machine sales, saying they are used often by young people to circumvent a Maryland ban on cigarette sales to minors.

Various proposals would outlaw the sales of cigarettes by vending machines, restrict their placement to areas where minors are barred, require them to be operated by tokens sold only to adults or increase the penalties for selling cigarettes to minors.

"We send a message that cigarettes are no more dangerous than the candy sold in the adjacent machine," said Del. Joan Pitkin, D-Prince George's, sponsor of the bill that would outlaw sales of cigarettes from vending machines.

But Del. Clarence Davis, D-City, said, "Don't you think the better way to approach the problem is to ensure that all children are guaranteed an equitable education so they can make educated decisions?"

Bruce C. Bereano, representing the Maryland/DC Vending Association and the Tobacco Institute, declared, "This is the commencement in the state of Maryland of the effort to stop the retail sale of cigarettes."

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