Cigarette Tax Band Wagon

February 23, 1994

Mickey Steinberg's motto must be "you can never have too much of a good thing." How else to explain his proposed $2 a pack tax on cigarettes? It would raise an astounding $500 million (till consumption falls) by increasing the current tax six-fold. It would make Maryland's tax three times higher than anywhere else in the country.

And it has absolutely no chance of winning legislative approval in Annapolis.

Mr. Steinberg, who is the state's lieutenant governor, stunned State House officials with his proposal. It is a preposterous proposal. Coming from a veteran politician, such a dead-on-arrival plan doesn't make sense. Except that Mr. Steinberg is running furiously for governor.

NTC As campaign bombast, Mr. Steinberg's anti-cigarette pitch is plausible. He seeks to befriend the no-smoking crowd. He wants to be the candidate who cares about the health and well-being of Maryland citizens. It's not a matter of raising taxes, he says, his goal is simply to cut down on smoking.

Politics aside, Mr. Steinberg has a valid point: the drive to raise the cigarette tax is primarily a health issue. Whatever money accrues is a bonus. What's key is stemming youngsters from getting hooked on smoking and persuading adults to cut out this dangerous, cancer-causing habit.

When Maryland raised its tobacco tax two years ago by 20 cents, there was a 10 percent decline in smoking. Gov. William Donald Schaefer is calling for a 25-cent a pack rise this year, which is expected to curb consumption another 15 percent. A cumulative 23.5 percent decline in cigarette purchases would be a significant step forward.

Once legislators stop chortling over the Steinberg publicity stunt, we suggest they carefully study the Schaefer approach. It is practical. It will put a crimp in the number of people who smoke, especially among the young. The money raised need not be used to expand the scope of government -- there are lots of ways to earmark the cash for one-time expenses, such as school construction, or as part of a cash reserve for emergencies.

The main focus should be on the good a higher cigarette tax can do. Maryland has one of the worst cancer rates in the U.S. Cutting down on the number of smokers will have long-term health benefits. That's more than enough reason to support the governor's cigarette tax package. Legislators should jump on his anti-smoking bandwagon.

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