Discouraging Smoking

April 09, 1994

Debate over a higher cigarette tax in Maryland started out as an attempt to raise more money for the state. But as the state Senate argues the pros and cons in the final days of this year's legislative session, the measure has become primarily a health issue. And rightly so.

Smoking causes 5,000 new cases of cancer every year in Maryland. This state continues to have one of the nation's highest cancer mortality rates. There's no doubt any longer that smoking is the biggest culprit. It contributes to 30 percent of all cancer deaths and 87 percent -- 7 out of 8 -- of all cases of lung cancer. Statistics show that a higher cigarette tax deters many people from smoking. Such an approach deserves legislative support.

Especially alarming is the fact that the average smoker -- thanks to easy access and a heavy dose of advertising -- takes up the habit at the age of 13. One way of discouraging youngsters from getting hooked is to raise the price of a pack of cigarettes through heavier taxation. Gov. William Donald Schaefer was on the right track when he proposed a 25-cent tax hike in January.

Since then, his bill has been substantially altered in a Senate committee so the state's levy would depend on actions in Washington. If the government raises the federal cigarette tax by $1.25, as proposed by one congressional panel, Maryland's tax would automatically rise by 30 percent of that amount, up to a maximum of 25 cents. The money raised in Maryland, though, would not be spent on expanding new programs but would go into the state's "rainy day" fund to guard against unexpected downturns or emergencies.

Higher cigarette taxes tend to discourage people from smoking. After Maryland raised its tobacco tax by 20 cents in 1992, there was a 21 percent decline in smoking. State revenue officials also note that higher prices on cigarettes do, indeed, cut into the number of packs purchased.

While merchants in Delaware have been aggressively advertising their lower prices for cigarettes -- with some success there has not been a major surge in "butt-legging" or of Maryland smokers driving across state borders to buy cheaper tobacco products. Pressure on people to cut down or quit smoking seems to be working.

The General Assembly should do its part. The governor's modified cigarette tax bill is first and foremost a health measure aimed at deterring smokers through economic disincentives. That's a sensible way to proceed. We urge the Senate to pass this proposal and do its part to improve the health of Maryland citizens.


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