Raise the tobacco tax! Curb teen smoking: Higher prices stop many youngsters from getting hooked.

February 23, 1997

SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE is overwhelming that cigarette smoking is detrimental to your health. Seven thousand six hundred Marylanders will die this year because of their smoking habits. Taxpayers will pay $123 million in Medicaid costs in Maryland to provide medical treatment for those with tobacco-related illnesses. The total annual health-care bill for smoking-related illnesses in Maryland is $4 billion.

Smoking is by far Maryland's No. 1 killer. Smokers are five times more likely to turn into binge drinkers and 15 times more likely to turn to marijuana. Ways to deter people from getting addicted must be pursued with vigor. Perhaps the most effective method is to tax tobacco high enough to dissuade teen-agers from buying cigarettes and smokeless tobacco. That's why proposals Annapolis to sharply raise the impost on cigarettes make sense.

For every 10 percent increase in price, statistics show there is a 4 percent decrease in adult smoking and up to a 14 percent decrease in teen-age smoking. The last time Maryland raised the tobacco tax (in 1992, from 16 cents to 36 cents a pack), 185,000 Marylanders quit smoking. Only when tobacco companies slashed cigarette prices did many of them take up the addictive habit again.

Opposition to a higher cigarette tax comes from rural legislators worried about Maryland's 900 tobacco farmers. But most of them raise this crop only part-time and nearly all the Maryland harvest is sold for use in cigarettes overseas. A higher state cigarette tax won't affect the price these farmers get at auction.

Tobacco companies spend $6 billion a year marketing their deadly products. With that kind of hyped-up promotion, it is not surprising that smoking among eighth-graders in Maryland has doubled in the past eight years. A state survey three years ago showed that one out of five eighth-graders smokes. That is an alarming statistic.

Lawmakers who care about the health of their constituents -- especially the well-being of future adults -- should support efforts to raise the tax on cigarettes, and on smokeless tobacco, which is now untaxed in Maryland. Price impediments are powerful incentives for teen-agers and adults to give up smoking. The higher the tobacco tax, the better.

! Pub Date: 2/23/97

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