Across party lines, voters favor raising cigarette tax by $1.50 Per-pack increase would nearly double price in Maryland

October 23, 1997|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Anti-smoking activists released a poll yesterday showing Maryland voters favor by nearly 2-to-1 a $1.50-a-pack increase in the state's cigarette tax and said teen smoking has become so potent a political issue that it can outweigh party loyalty.

The poll, conducted last month, showed that the Democratic majority said it would back a Republican legislative candidate who favored a cigarette tax increase over a Democrat who opposed one.

"We now know clearly where the majority of Marylanders stand," said state Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat who attended a news conference organized by Maryland Citizen Action and Smoke Free Maryland at the state medical society in Baltimore. "It's an eye-opener for any legislators who freeze up when they hear the word 'tax.' "

The telephone poll, paid for by the Abell Foundation and the Maryland State Teachers Association, included 602 Marylanders chosen at random who said they were likely to vote. It was conducted by the firm of pollster Celinda Lake.

Of those questioned, 62 percent said they favor or strongly favor an increase of $1.50 in the state tax of 36 cents, compared with 32 percent opposed or strongly opposed. Such an increase would nearly double the average retail price of a pack in Maryland, which is $1.80.

But the most striking results related to party affiliation. Asked which party's candidates they were more likely to support in a legislative race, those polled favored Democrats over Republicans 52 percent to 32 percent.

If the Democratic candidate favored the cigarette tax and the Republican opposed it, the gap widened to 52 percent to 25 percent. But if the Republican supported the tax and the Democrat opposed it, the numbers flipped, with 38 percent for the pro-tax Republican and 30 percent for the anti-tax Democrat.

"These numbers are startling," said Lake, a nationally prominent pollster who has worked mainly for Democrats. "Being willing to change your vote over an issue like this is very unusual."

Many public health experts say increasing the price of cigarettes is the surest and fastest way to reduce smoking, particularly by teens.

"In the short run, the single most effective measure we could take is to get the price up," said Kenneth E. Warner, an economist and smoking expert at the University of Michigan. "That's more effective in decreasing consumption than a ban on advertising or almost anything else."

But the tobacco industry says a state tax increase would encourage smuggling of cigarettes from adjoining states with lower prices. Tobacco Institute Vice President Walker Merryman said Maryland cigarette prices are already about $2 higher for a 10-pack carton than those in Virginia, Delaware and West Virginia.

"If you added another $15 to that, the temptation to smuggle would be overwhelming," he said. Smuggling might increase youth smoking, he said, because "smugglers don't require photo ID."

In Maryland, a state with a three-century history of tobacco farming, the General Assembly has proven reluctant to increase the tax.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening early this year proposed doubling the current state tax to 72 cents a pack. But anti-smoking delegates overplayed their hand by trying for a $1-a-pack increase, and the tax was left unchanged.

Now anti-tobacco forces are preparing for another try next year. They say the industry's formidable political strength has been eroded by negative publicity accompanying lawsuits filed against cigarette makers by 40 states, including Maryland.

"If the people lead, their leaders in the legislature eventually will follow," said Dr. Joseph A. Adams, a Towson physician and president of the Smoke Free Maryland coalition.

Pub Date: 10/23/97

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