Star skater Tara Lipinski braved the chilly rain yesterday to bring a simple message to a few dozen children slipping and sliding across a wet ice rink in downtown Baltimore:
Skating is cool. Smoking is not.
It was a terrible day for ice skating, at least outdoors, but the 16-year-old Olympic gold medalist had a different purpose in mind when she stopped by the Rash Field rink at the Inner Harbor. Huddled under an umbrella, she joined a half-dozen student leaders from across Maryland in rallying to raise the state's cigarette tax to discourage teen smoking.
"I have seen and met too many kids who smoke," Lipinski said, as damp-haired children and television crews crowded around her. "The fact is that if someone does not become a smoker by the age of 19, they will likely never begin this unhealthy -- and potentially deadly -- habit."
Anti-smoking activists are pushing legislation to increase Maryland's 36-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes by an additional $1.50. The proposal, which will be introduced in the coming General Assembly session, is being pushed as a way to price cash-poor teens out of smoking.
The higher tax is expected to be a tough sell, however, even with the support of Gov. Parris N. Glendening and numerous lawmakers.
Similar legislation died in committee in the last session. Some lawmakers oppose raising taxes at a time when the state has a large budget surplus; others say that cigarette prices have gone up already as a result of the national multibillion-dollar tobacco settlement.
Lipinski isn't legally of age to buy a pack of cigarettes. But as the national spokeswoman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids she has experienced firsthand the difficulties of taking on the tobacco industry. She campaigned on Capitol Hill last summer for the passage of landmark anti-smoking legislation, only to see it collapse under the sustained attacks and advertising of the tobacco industry.
"We tried," Lipinski said with youthful optimism, "and we'll just keep trying."
That's why, she said, she took time out from rehearsing yesterday for the "Discover Stars on Ice" skating exhibition. After her speech, Lipinski signed autographs and hugged young admirers. She said she has no regrets about turning professional, a move she made this year after becoming skating's youngest gold medalist at the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.
"I'm still skating as much as when I was an amateur, but there's a little less pressure," she said.
In the crowd of soaked children around the ice rink was Aziza Alaoui, 7, who dreams of soaring and spinning across the ice one day like Lipinski.
"She's such a great skater. She's the best. She should always be in first place," she said.
But Abbey Wilson, 17, hoped the little girls would remember something else about Lipinski. Wilson, a senior at Severna Park High School, is the legislative leader for the Maryland Association of Student Councils, which backs the tobacco tax increase.
"People look at her and think, 'If I want to be successful, this is what I can do,' " she said.
Pub Date: 12/30/98