Anti-smoking group recruits legislators 182 candidates pledge to back cigarette tax increase, coalition says

September 04, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

A Maryland anti-smoking coalition said yesterday 182

candidates for the General Assembly, including 74 incumbents, have pledged to support a $1.50-a-pack increase in the state's cigarette tax to reduce teen smoking.

"It's our job between now and Election Day to make sure the voters of Maryland know who is on this list," said Vincent DeMarco, executive director of Maryland Children's Initiative. "We believe we are at the threshold of passing one of the most important pieces of legislation to protect the health of children from tobacco."

DeMarco said those who have signed the tax pledge include 22 state Senate incumbents and 52 House of Delegates incumbents. Twenty-four senators and 71 delegate votes are required to pass a bill.

A similar proposal died in committee this year, and neither Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. nor House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. has signed the pledge. Miller, whose opposition could kill the proposal, said yesterday he is inclined to oppose increasing the cigarette tax when the state budget is running a surplus.

"Right now, my philosophy is to look toward cutting taxes," Miller said. He said cigarette taxes are regressive, disproportionately hurting blue-collar workers and minorities, and expressed skepticism that a higher tax would cut youth smoking.

"Teens still buy the most expensive CDs and tennis shoes," he said.

But DeMarco, who in the past organized successful grass-roots campaigns for state gun control legislation, said his coalition will keep up the pressure, putting up billboards and mobilizing student activists. The Maryland Association of Student Councils agreed last month to take a leading role.

Signers include Senate Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount and House Majority Leader John Adams Hurson. House Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Sheila E. Hixson signed the pledge.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, the chairwoman of the other crucial committee for tax legislation, Senate Budget and Taxation, declined to sign but said yesterday she supports the tax.

"I really don't ever sign pledges, and I think their bill needs a lot of work," she said. "But I'm in favor of the tax. If you make cigarettes more expensive, it will discourage the younger smoker more than the older smoker. And it gives older smokers an excuse to quit."

Hoffman said last year's state tobacco tax increase failed in part because Congress still appeared likely to pass comprehensive federal legislation, which was expected to produce a price increase of at least $1.10 a pack. Since the federal tobacco bill died in June, the focus for anti-smoking advocates has returned to the states.

"I think the chances [for passing the tax increase] are better than they've ever been," she said.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has signed the pledge; Republican gubernatorial candidates Ellen R. Sauerbrey and Charles I. Ecker declined.

The proposal would raise Maryland's tax on a pack of cigarettes, now 36 cents, by 50 cents each year for three years. The third year's increase would be suspended if teen smoking had declined by more than a third, DeMarco said.

Public health experts have long advocated higher tobacco taxes as the most reliable way to cut youth smoking. In a study released last month, the state Department of Legislative Services concluded that for each 10 percent increase in cigarette prices, smoking would decline by 4 percent to 7 percent overall, with the steepest reduction among the youngest smokers.

Cigarette makers argue that higher taxes create a black market, burden lower-income people and do little to reduce smoking.

But internal industry documents unearthed in recent lawsuits suggest that the industry has long worried that higher prices reduce smoking.

A 1987 Philip Morris memo suggested that 1982 and 1983 price increases had "caused 2 million adults to quit smoking and prevented 600,000 teen-agers from starting to smoke." Noting that 420,000 of the teens "would have been" smokers of Philip Morris brands, the memo said: "We don't need to have that happen again."

A 1992 Philip Morris memo, anticipating the pending increase in Maryland's per-pack tax from 16 to 36 cents, projected a sales decline of 3 percent for the company's brands and 7 percent overall.

Philip Morris spokesman David Quast said last night the company acknowledges that tax increases "could have an impact on consumption." But he said, "Consumers are good at avoiding taxes," so high taxes in one state could prompt smokers to cross state boundaries for cheaper cigarettes.

The District of Columbia has a 65-cent per-pack tax, but Virginia's is 2.5 cents, West Virginia's 17 cents, Delaware's 24 cents and Pennsylvania's 31 cents.

Glenn E. Schneider, acting executive director of Smoke Free Maryland, said other states are considering tax increases, and the industry's fear is a domino effect.

"The reason they don't want a tax increase here is that other states will copy our lead," he said.

Pub Date: 9/04/98

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