Drive starts for cigarette tax rise

Anti-smoking groups seek 70-cent increase

April 13, 2001|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Anti-smoking groups launched a State House lobbying effort yesterday to win a 70-cent per pack increase in the state's tax on cigarettes next year, a move that would give Maryland the highest such tax in the nation.

Advocates said the increase, which would be the second in three years, would drive down smoking rates and raise an estimated $200 million in annual revenue.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposed a $1 per pack increase in the cigarette tax in 1999 but was able to win only a 30-cent boost from the General Assembly, pushing the state tax to 66 cents a pack.

Advocates talked yesterday about the need to "finish the job" begun in 1999. Michaeline Fedder, president of the Smoke Free Maryland Coalition, pointed to statistics showing that sales of cigarettes here have decreased 16 percent since the tax increase took effect.

"We know by increasing it by an additional 70 cents, the results will be even more dramatic," Fedder said during a State House news conference. She and other advocates said the tax increase would have the greatest impact on young smokers, who can least afford higher prices.

Maryland, which has the 12th-highest cigarette tax, would have the highest tax in the nation if it increases its levy by 70 cents. New York has the highest, $1.11 per pack.

Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill said the governor was neither supporting nor opposing a tax increase. "The governor supports efforts to reduce youth smoking, but he has indicated to the General Assembly that he will not request another raise in the tobacco tax," Morrill said.

The governor played a key role in 1999 in breaking a Senate filibuster against the tax increase.

Without the governor's active support, it's unclear if advocates can push through a tax increase in a year in which legislators will stand for re-election. Lobbyists for the tobacco industry said they will fight the proposal by focusing, in part, on the political risk of raising taxes.

"It's an offensive proposal to the taxpayers of this state," said Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist for the state's tobacco wholesalers. "I know it's a tobacco tax, but it is raising taxes in an election year, which is always hard to justify to the public."

But anti-smoking advocates said polls have shown that Marylanders tend to favor increases in the cigarette tax.

"Poll after poll around the country shows there's no political downside to raising cigarette taxes," said Peter Fisher, assistant director of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Among the groups backing the tax increase is the Maryland Citizens Health Initiative, which is pushing for universal health care for all Marylanders.

Vincent DeMarco, executive director of the health initiative group, said it would like to use the $200 million that would be generated by a 70-cent increase to help cover the uninsured.

He said, however, that his organization, which has support from about 1,600 community groups, will also look for other revenue sources.

The organization is expected to announce a health care proposal later this year and push for it in next year's Assembly session.

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