For cancer patient, reason for cigarette tax is clear

March 08, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Time is getting away. Marsha Lapin waits for a scheduled 1 o'clock hearing on raising tobacco taxes in Maryland, but the clock says it's already a half-hour past starting time. Lapin, 49, is an expert on time and tobacco. The time remaining in her life is disappearing because of the tobacco.

"Worst case, six months," she says. "Best case, a year, maybe two. The doctor said it's a miracle if I go longer than that, but I told him, I'm a believer in miracles."

She's also a believer in not having to rely on miracles. She went to Annapolis last week to back a proposal to raise cigarette taxes by $1.50 a pack and thus hinder kids' ability to buy them. Legislators are expected to vote on the measure this week.

Such things would seem to be a no-brainer. The tobacco companies, willfully poisoning millions of people for years, then forced to admit the murderous effects of their product, then belatedly admitting to the addictive qualities as well, are now caught with memos showing how they geared sales pitches to kids. Marsha Lapin was 12 when she started.

"If there was a tobacco tax back [in 1960], I wouldn't have become a smoker, and not addicted to the nicotine that the tobacco companies knowingly added to the cigarettes," she says. "And I wouldn't be living with lung cancer, as I am now."

While everyone gives lip service to their great concern for her troubles, not everyone takes her side on the tax issue. The tobacco industry is lobbying like mad, and spreading money wherever possible. Check who votes which way this week, and whose pockets have been padded by whom.

But the reasoning will be veiled in smoke.

"A tax is a tax," says Dennis McCoy, the former delegate who's now lobbying for Philip Morris and U.S. Tobacco. "Do you fashion social policy using your tax money? Should 25 percent of the population pay for 100 percent of a problem?"

Or else the naysayers talk money. Raise the taxes, they say, and it just forces people to drive across the border and buy cartons of cigarettes in Delaware, or in Pennsylvania. They'll still smoke, but it'll cost Maryland money in direct sales

"What baloney," says Vincent DeMarco, executive director of the Maryland Children's Initiative, which is lobbying for the tax hike. "We've got a [Maryland Department of Fiscal Services] study that says we might lose 2 percent of the market to other states. People buy by the pack, not the carton. But it's a stupid argument, anyway. We're equating the loss of sales to the loss of lives?"

The notion is: If you make the cost prohibitive, you stop kids from purchasing cigarettes. If you stop kids, you wipe out a generation of those who will smoke, and those who will die, and those who will cost everyone a fortune in health care on the road to dying.

"It's very simple," says Baltimore Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson. "You raise the cost, you reduce consumption. In every state they've done it, that's the pattern. And if you stop them during their teens, you stop them altogether. The studies show, if you don't start smoking by age 20, there's a 90 percent chance you won't start at all."

And so, last week, we had Marsha Lapin standing in this hallway in Annapolis, waiting to tell a legislative committee why it should vote for a tobacco tax hike. In the nature of these things, the hearing was late getting started. Lapin is conscious of the ticking of the clock. Young people are not.

"When I started smoking," she said, "you put 25 cents in the machine and got 2 cents change. And all your friends were smoking, so the peer pressure was great. Back then, we didn't know about the health hazards. Today, the kids hear about them, but they don't believe it. That's youth. They think they're invincible."

In Maryland, it's estimated that about 60 kids a day take up smoking. That's about 20,000 kids a year. Marsha Lapin was one of them when she took up smoking and imagined herself invincible. Now she is 49, and her life is running out, and when she finally had a chance to address legislators, here are a few things she said:

"There is not one day which passes that I am not aware of living with cancer. My feet and fingers are always tingling and feeling like pins and needles. I am always dropping things and losing my balance, and my voice becomes hoarse. I should not be submitting my medical bills to my insurance company. They should go directly to the tobacco companies to be paid by them.

"And millions of others would have avoided cancer associated with smoking. Including my uncle, a good and decent person who died yesterday of lung cancer. I saw them place him in a body bag, and his only fault in life is that he, too, was duped by the tobacco companies.

"And if the tobacco companies didn't blatantly lie by claiming nicotine was not addictive, then my mother would not be lying in Johns Hopkins Hospital today as a result of 60 years of smoking."

Time has gotten away from them all. The tobacco tax is a shot at reaching kids who don't understand how short time can be from the hour of a first puff to the moment of a final gasp.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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