Maryland's tobacco policy isn't good for anyone's health

September 25, 2002|By JAY HANCOCK

DEMOCRATIC government, being driven by diverse forces, often works in contradictory and prodigal ways. But few public programs can beat Maryland and its wacky tobacco policy for mixed motives and dubious outlays.

The state sued one part of the cigarette production chain - manufacturers - only to give large amounts of the litigation proceeds to another - tobacco farmers.

Politicians want to preserve the state's open space and agricultural heritage. But they're working to wipe out tobacco growing, one of the few ways Maryland farmers can make a decent living.

FOR THE RECORD - Jay Hancock's column in Wednesday's editions of The Sun contained an incorrect figure for the amount of money Maryland devotes to stopping tobacco use. The state's Tobacco Use Prevention and Cessation Program is budgeted to spend $31.4 million this fiscal year. The Sun regrets the error.

Maryland collects $290 million a year in cigarette taxes. But it tries to eliminate this revenue by spending $100 million a year on smoking-prevention programs.

About 90,000 Maryland families live below the poverty line. But this year Maryland raised cigarette excise taxes by half, to $1 a pack. Tobacco taxes hit the poor disproportionately hard, and, because tobacco is addictive, the increase amounts in many cases to government extortion.

(The insult to the injury is that Maryland's 5 percent sales tax is calculated after the $1 excise levy is added to price of a pack. You pay a tax on a tax.)

The war on terrorism has burdened public-safety forces. But the rising cigarette tax has spawned a vibrant black market and another crime category to worry about.

In open societies, policy paradox is not necessarily a fault and is often a virtue. But the drawbacks and grating dissonance of Maryland's tobacco-policy goals, I would argue, are evidence of flawed strategy and wasted money.

This is not a defense of the tobacco industry or a denial of the sot weed's dangers. The stuff causes bad breath, brown teeth, numb taste buds, addiction and death.

Rather, it is an assertion that, with a billion-dollar budget deficit looming and an established anti-smoking establishment already fully engaged, this is not the time for Maryland to be spending hundreds of millions to combat tobacco use.

From its settlement with cigarette companies, the state gets almost a quarter-billion dollars - enough to build a Ravens Stadium - a year. About $100 million, justifiably, goes toward Medicaid, and other money finances non-Medicaid cancer diagnosis and treatment, which could help plug gaps in the health insurance system.

But most of the remainder gets spent on school and government anti-tobacco programs that are marginal, redundant or dumb. It's an extremely expensive anti-smoking crusade that isn't going to do much to stop smoking.

The nation's campaign against tobacco is 4 decades old now, highly successful and woven into the education system, the philanthropic establishment, the research infrastructure and the government health agencies. There's a law of diminishing returns, and it's hard to believe that Maryland's piling on is going to make much difference, at least not enough to justify the dollars spent.

The most visible part of Maryland's effort is the absurd, $14 million "Smoking Stops Here" ad blitz, an example of money gone up in smoke if there ever was one.

So gung-ho was the state to marshal your dollars against the sot weed scourge that last year it showered anti-tobacco money on municipalities that weren't prepared to receive it and had no idea how to spend it. Counties returned $9 million of the $19 million in tobacco-settlement funds they got, but this year they'll get a another chance to blow it.

They'll probably figure out how.

Howard County boasts a "Cadillac model" smoking-cessation program that is financed by settlement proceeds and offers "virtually every possible medical, financial and emotional aid to participants," including antidepressants, according to a February article in this newspaper by Larry Carson. County workers get free time off for the class.

In Southern Maryland, tobacco farmers are being paid $6 million this year to forsake the three-century heritage of their forefathers and switch to geraniums or soybeans.

The idea is to make Maryland tobacco-free in its barns as well as its bronchioles. But the farm buyout may be the most rock-headed idea of all, more proof that, for fans of activist government, money poured down a hole with good intentions is better than actually doing something about a problem.

Tobacco can be grown and bought worldwide. Bribing Maryland farmers out of the tobacco business won't save one life or stop one person from smoking.

Many have taken satisfaction in the moral symmetry of the tobacco-settlement spending - seizing the wages of Marlboro and Camel to undo the harm they caused.

But we're running a state here, not writing a poem. There are better ways to spend the money.

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