Clerics back Md. tobacco tax increase Coalition supports $1.50-per-pack rise aimed at teen-agers

'Nobody should smoke'

Denominations' decision termed 'a breakthrough'

July 14, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

A coalition of religious leaders representing Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans and others lent their support yesterday to an initiative that aims to curb teen smoking by raising the Maryland state tax on cigarettes $1.50 a pack.

The broad-based support of the members of the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council for the Maryland Children's Initiative is considered significant because, while individual religious denominations may have discouraged smoking among their members, they have not been in the forefront of the legal and political anti-smoking movement.

The initiative was endorsed at a news conference yesterday at the council's North Baltimore offices by the local Lutheran and United Methodist bishops, and representatives of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore, the United Missionary Baptist Convention, the American Baptist Churches of the South and the Presbyterian Church (USA).

"It is a groundbreaking step," said United Methodist Bishop Felton Edwin May of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, which passed a resolution at its annual meeting last month endorsing the initiative. "It shows cohesiveness and collaboration at a level that would move this issue ahead. None of us as individuals or as denominations can do it alone."

May noted that Methodists have long discouraged tobacco use, and as early as 1918, required applicants for ministry to abstain from its use.

His colleague, Lutheran Bishop George Mocko, said that his denomination had no such reluctance.

"Nobody should smoke. Not children, not teen-agers, not adults," he said. "Now it may seem strange to have a Lutheran standing up here saying this because we have been known for years as having a lot of fun, making fun of Baptists and Methodists for spending so much time for getting exercised on this subject.

'We were wrong'

"Well, on smoking we were wrong and they were right," he said. "It comes down to the proper stewardship of our bodies."

The Rev. Sidney Daniels, representing the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a coalition of Baltimore's African-American clergy, said the initiative's goal to reduce smoking among youths "lays hold of a basic principle: Children should not be influenced to do the wrong thing, to contaminate their bodies, destroy their lives, to make profit for the death dealers who are selling cigarettes."

Vincent DeMarco, executive director of the initiative, said the ministers joined a group of more than 290 state and local organizations that have endorsed the tobacco tax increase. DeMarco said every candidate for the General Assembly is being asked to endorse the $1.50-per-pack cigarette tax increase, and his organization will publicize which candidates agree to support it and which don't.

Brendan McCormick, spokesman for Philip Morris Cos., the nation's largest tobacco company, called the proposal "nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to raise taxes at a time when the state has a $317 million budget surplus."

'Not about youth smoking'

"Given that the issue is youth smoking, Philip Morris strongly supports efforts to keep tobacco products out of the hands of kids. However, this is about raising taxes. It is not about youth smoking," he said.

Richard Daynard, a Boston law professor and chairman of the Tobacco Products Liability Project, said that as far as he is aware, the involvement of religious groups in the anti-tobacco movement has been limited to resolutions passed in annual conventions and the divestment of tobacco stock by many denominations.

Addressing specifics

"In general, they have not been on the front lines of specific tobacco control initiatives, with the exception of divestment," he said. "So I think it's very important they're coming out and not just saying, 'In general, one ought to do something,' but saying specifically these things should be done and should be done by our legislature and should be done this year."

John F. Banzhaf III, an anti-smoking pioneer who is executive director of the Washington-based Action on Smoking and Health, called the coalition's support for the tobacco tax increase "a breakthrough."

Up until now, "there have been sporadic involvements" in the anti-smoking movement by religious groups, most notably the Seventh-day Adventists and the Mormon Church. Otherwise, he said, "in terms of a religious organization using its might or strongly proselytizing [against smoking], I'm not aware of much of that."

Pub Date: 7/14/98

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