Double dividend

Cigarette tax: Frantic budget ploy could divert new teen smokers while raising needed revenue.

March 05, 2002

HAVING PAINTED themselves into a painfully tight revenue corner, the Maryland General Assembly should go along with a proposal to raise taxes on cigarettes.

A more honest approach to budgeting would have started with the politically difficult decision to delay or even cancel the last year of an income tax cut. But this is an election year, so the Assembly chose to complete the tax-cut cycle at the cost of a $175-million hole. Hence their budget problems and the cigarette tax option.

The proposed doubling of the current 66-cents-per-package tax would raise as much as $200 million. That sum would solve the self-made budget problems and, possibly, provide some money to start paying for the Thornton Commission's proposals for balancing state aid for education.

The cigarette tax also carries the bonus advantage of erecting a higher financial barrier to young people who may wish to look cool even as they mire themselves in a debilitating and deadly habit. An increase of 30 cents in the tax two years ago resulted in fewer new smokers, according to a Maryland Department of Education survey of some 34,500 Maryland students.

Earlier studies have shown that most adult smokers were under 18 when they started. The recent survey suggests as many as 20,000 young Marylanders have been diverted from this path at least temporarily because cigarettes were priced out of their reach by the tax. Thousands might have become victims of smoking-related heart disease and lung cancer.

So, as the Assembly stumbles around searching vainly for a rational budgeting approach, at least it has found a stopgap that could improve the quality of life and even save lives.

Improving the quality of budget-making apparently will have to wait.

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