Up in Smoke

September 11, 1991

Marylanders pay an estimated $1 billion in smoked-related health-care costs yearly, according to the Maryland Cancer Consortium. Yet all the state earned in cigarette taxes last year was $61.1 million -- $10 million less than 10 years ago.

As the incidence of lung cancer climbs, the tobacco industry continues to successfully lobby in the State House and Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein takes a tepid stance on increasing cigarette taxes. Mr. Goldstein's office argues that increasing the cigarette taxes would encourage bootlegging from neighboring states like Virginia that have lower cigarette taxes.

That misses the point. Canada increased the price of a pack of cigarettes to $4.78 (U.S. dollars) to decrease the risk of lung cancer. Even with a burgeoning black market, the number of Canadian smokers is decreasing by nearly 4 percent a year. Merely raising Maryland's tobacco taxes by 10 percent would decrease the number of its adult smokers in the state by 4 percent and reduce the number of teen smokers by 12 percent, according to some experts.

The General Assembly is loathe to have its hands tied when it allocates tax revenues. So it comes as no surprise that state legislators have been skeptical of cigarette tax increases pushed by the anti-smoking lobby to pay for smoking-related health care costs.

But this past spring, lawmakers approved a three-cent tobacco tax increase and applied the sales tax to cigarettes to help balance the budget. With a $1 billion deficit staring at legislators over the next 18 months, the General Assembly now may look favorably upon even heftier tobacco-tax rises. Sen. Barbara Hoffman, vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said she would favor increasing the excise tax by 25 cents. That would be a smart move. Higher cigarette taxes are an easy way for legislators to close the budget gap and at the same time reduce the state's health-care costs linked to the high incidence of lung cancer.

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