Smoking foes see election issue Voters to be alerted to candidates' views on cigarette tax rise

July 03, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Armed with a poll showing bipartisan support for a $1.50-a-pack increase in Maryland's cigarette tax, anti-smoking advocates vowed yesterday to make the tax a central issue in the governor's race and legislative elections.

"We'll be launching a major campaign to make sure Maryland voters know how candidates stand on this issue," said Vincent DeMarco, executive director of the Maryland Children's Initiative, anti-tobacco coalition of 286 health and children's organizations pushing for the tax.

He said advocates will ask all candidates for the General Assembly to sign a pledge to support the $1.50 tax and will publicize the results.

DeMarco appeared yesterday at a news conference at the state medical society in Baltimore with Democratic pollster Mark Penn and Republican pollster Steven Wagner, who discussed the results of their telephone poll last month of 1,500 likely Maryland voters.

Because the major Democratic gubernatorial candidates, including Gov. Parris N. Glendening, have endorsed the tax increase and the major Republican candidates oppose it, the tobacco tax could offer voters a clear choice in a race where no dominant issue has yet emerged, the pollsters said.

Asked whether they support a $1.50-a-pack tax increase, phased in over three years, "to reduce teen smoking," those polled said yes by a margin of 61 percent to 37 percent.

More striking was the finding that support for the tax was bipartisan: Democrats favored the tax 61 percent to 38 percent, while Republicans backed it by only a slightly smaller margin, 58 percent to 39 percent.

"It is abundantly clear that, for Republicans to be competitive, candidates have to be responsive to the very broad concern expressed in this poll about teen smoking," said Wagner, who conducted much of the research behind the GOP's "Contract with America."

Maryland's cigarette tax was last increased in 1992 from 16 cents a pack to 36 cents a pack, where it stands now.

In addition to Glendening, two of his Democratic challengers, Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann and Montgomery County insurance broker Raymond F. Schoenke Jr., have

endorsed the $1.50 tax increase proposal.

Rehrmann has reserved judgment on the rest of the Maryland Children's Initiative proposal, which directs how the money raised by the tax should be spent, DeMarco said.

The initiative wants the new tax to be used for a campaign against smoking, drinking and drug use, to reduce class size in public schools and to pay for after-school programs and other measures for children.

The Maryland State Teachers Association is a major sponsor of the initiative.

The two Republican candidates, Ellen R. Sauerbrey and Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, oppose the tax, as does one Democratic candidate, physician Terry McGuire of Prince George's County.

Sauerbrey, who is considered the leading Republican candidate, said yesterday she considers teen smoking a serious problem but does not think a tax increase is the solution.

"I've always believed taxes should be used to raise needed revenue, not to control people's behavior," Sauerbrey said. "I think when you start down this road, today it's tobacco, tomorrow it's McDonald's hamburgers, which somebody may say are unhealthy."

In addition, she said, "sales taxes are very regressive. They weigh most heavily on the poor."

As alternative measures to combat teen smoking, Sauerbrey said she would support punishing retailers who sell cigarettes to underage purchasers and might support restrictions on the placement of cigarette vending machines.

Sauerbrey did call the poll's showing of Republican support for a cigarette tax increase "somewhat surprising. Generally speaking, Republicans are not in favor of increasing taxes."

Most public health experts say that increasing the price of cigarettes is the surest way to reduce smoking, and that teen-agers are particularly sensitive to price increases. The comprehensive tobacco legislation pending before Congress would result in a price increase of at least $1.10 and possibly more than $2 a pack.

A study by University of Maryland economist William Evans predicted that a $1.10-a-pack price increase over five years would reduce teen smoking by 27 percent.

But the leading bill in Congress, sponsored by U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, faltered in the face of a national advertising campaign by the tobacco industry, which said the higher taxes would be a burden on smokers of modest income and could lead to cigarette smuggling to fuel a black market.

Now most observers consider the likelihood of tobacco legislation passing Congress this year to be slender to nonexistent. The tobacco battle has therefore shifted back to the states, where anti-smoking forces are pushing for higher state -- taxes.

Pub Date: 7/03/98

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