Panel rejects cigarette tax rise Senate committee extinguishes hopes of health advocates

March 25, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Snuffing out the hopes of health advocates, a Senate committee rejected legislation yesterday that would have increased the state's tax on cigarettes and created Maryland's first tax on smokeless tobacco products and cigars.

The vote by the Budget and Taxation Committee effectively ends debate on the tobacco tax issue for the remainder of the General Assembly's 90-day session, lawmakers said.

By the time the panel met to vote on a bill to raise the state's 36-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes by $1.50, proponents knew that the proposal had no chance of passage.

Instead, Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., the bill's chief sponsor, proposed a stripped-down version of the bill that would have taxed, for the first time, smokeless products such as chewing tobacco.

But the proposal failed on a vote of 7 to 6.

"I'm very disappointed," said Van Hollen, a Montgomery Democrat. "It's an issue where the public is way ahead of the legislature."

He added, "All the polls suggest there's support for a large tax increase in cigarettes, let alone smokeless products."

The cigarette-tax bill was backed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and a coalition of health-advocacy and consumer groups, which had launched an advertising campaign in recent weeks to raise awareness of the issue.

Advocates point to statistics showing that an increase in the tax on cigarettes leads to reductions in smoking by teen-agers.

Once fully phased in, the cigarette tax increase was expected to generate more than $300 million in state revenue.

Money raised by the tax would have been used for programs including treatment of substance abuse and a campaign to educate the public about smoking-related risks.

A smaller portion would have been set aside to help tobacco farmers grow other crops.

But the tobacco industry lobbied against the bill, as did some retailers.

Many legislators were reluctant to approve any tax increase in an election year, particularly with the state enjoying a healthy budget surplus.

In the face of that opposition, Van Hollen had hoped to approve at least a tax on smokeless products, something the Senate committee had approved in 1995 and 1996.

The bill would have instituted a 25 percent tax on the wholesale price of such products and would have been expected to generate about $4 million in state revenue.

Maryland is one of eight states that does not tax either smokeless products, such as chewing tobacco, or cigars.

Vincent DeMarco, head of a coalition of groups supporting the tax bill, called the vote "disappointing." He said he planned to try to use the issue to influence the outcome of legislative races this fall. "Our plan is to make this a voting issue in the 1998 election," DeMarco said. "The public overwhelmingly supports a $1.50 increase in the tobacco tax, and they will make this an issue at the polls."

After the vote, some senators on the panel made comments critical of the outcome.

"To allow this not to pass is unbelievable to me," said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery Democrat. She said money generated by the tax was needed to help educate the public, particularly minors, about the dangers of smoking.

But Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, who voted against the bill, said the committee had never pressed state officials for major new spending on smoking education.

"We could have asked the health department why [more money hasn't] been put into smoking cessation programs," said Middleton, a Democrat from Charles County. "Now we have to have a tax."

Joining Van Hollen and Ruben in supporting the tax on smokeless tobacco products were Democratic Sens. Nathaniel J. McFadden and Barbara A. Hoffman, both of Baltimore; Edward J. Kasemeyer of Howard County; and Gloria G. Lawlah of Prince George's.

Joining Middleton against the bill were Republican Sens. F. Vernon Boozer of Baltimore County; Donald F. Munson of Washington County; Robert R. Neall of Anne Arundel; and Patrick J. Hogan of Montgomery, along with Democrats Ulysses Currie of Prince George's and Donald Fry of Harford.

Pub Date: 3/25/98

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