Life for Marylanders becomes more taxing

May 02, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

Gov. William Donald Schaefer was not at a Cross Street tobacco store yesterday. Neither was he at a Johns Hopkins Hospital lunchroom or a newsstand at Greenmount Avenue and 32nd Street. If he had been, he would have gotten an earful as Marylanders shouldered the burden of increased taxation.

But along with words of anger, frustration and suspicion, he would have heard one thing that would have given him cheer: Many smokers were talking about cutting back or quitting, rather than paying the steeply higher cigarette taxes he championed.

Joe Contino, who runs Shirley & Joe's confectionery shop in South Baltimore, said he was "on the verge of quitting" over the 20-cent-a-pack increase that went into effect in Maryland yesterday.

"A lot of customers tell me they're not going to pay the price," Mr. Contino said as he bought about a dozen cartons at Man A Lan-San Candy & Tobacco Inc., on East Cross Street. "A lot of them say they're going to get that patch."

Those customers might find they have to wait for the increasingly popular skin patches, which help wean smokers off cigarettes.

John Andreadakis, pharmacist at Hampden Pharmacy on Falls Road, said his store was "going crazy" selling the prescription patches. Many customers have said the new tax was pushing them to stop smoking, he said.

During the recent General Assembly session, Governor Schaefer vigorously pushed the higher cigarette tax in an effort to bring down Maryland's high cancer rate. When the tobacco lobby seemed on the verge of derailing the higher levy, the governor threatened to veto any tax bill that did not include the increase.

He finally got his way, and the state's new $250 million tax package, although it might make Marylanders healthier, isn't making them any happier.

"I feel terrible," said Bernadette Dillow of South Baltimore as shehauled several cartons of cigarettes out of Man A Lan-San. "In 15 minutes, it's cost me $16 with gas and cigarettes."

She added that the extra $12-a-month cost would not make her quit, though it might force her to cut back. "It's the only thing I've got to do," she said. "I'm on a pension, and live alone. It's the only pleasure I get."

Inside the store, assistant manager William Andrews wasn't feeling much better. "Fridays, usually, this place is humming," he said as he surveyed the nearly empty shop. Many customers stocked up Thursday, he said.

Smokers seemed to be the most disgruntled taxpayers in Maryland yesterday, but they were hardly the only ones who had to pay more. The law brings a long menu of new taxes, and yesterday's changes were only the first course.

May brought a 5-cent-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax and an extension of the sales tax to a variety of goods and services.

Lunchtime patrons of the Hampton House Cafe in the Johns Hopkins Hospital complex were greeted with a sign yesterday informing them that their meals would no longer be tax-free. As part of the new law, cafeterias at hospitals and colleges lost their exemption.

The change was a mild hassle for the lunchroom staff because the computerized registers needed to be reprogrammed, said cashier John Warnack, but he said it was not a "major annoyance."

Customers at Hopkins generally took the new tax in stride. Some called it regressive, some didn't even notice it, and a few actually applauded it.

Predictably, the increased cigarette tax was much more popular at Hopkins than on Cross Street, a bastion of tar and nicotine in an increasingly smoke-free world.

"Maybe if people have to pay higher taxes, they'll think twice before they smoke," said Lesley Bonanno, a dietetic technician.

At Greenmount Avenue and 32nd Street in Waverly, one customer did a double-take when news dealer Joe Barnes told him his daily newspaper would cost 53 cents. "Oh, that's right," he said, remembering it was the day newspapers also lost their sales tax exemption.

Frank Rehak, a Baltimore teacher, found that idea repugnant on two counts. He hates dealing with pennies -- "the most useless piece of currency in this country." And he objects to any tax on printed matter, especially books. "Why are we taxing an idea?" he demanded.

Nevertheless, the most common reaction among Marylanders yesterday was neither anger nor approval. It was resignation.

Sonny Showalter, manager of Stadium Amoco in Waverly, said few of his customers commented on the higher gasoline tax.

"They've had enough publicity that people already accept it," he said. "I'm like everybody else. I accept it. I don't like it any more than anybody else."

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