Cut teen smoking by raising tax on packs

December 10, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

According to a new report from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Maryland spends about 60 percent of what it should be spending on efforts to get teenagers to stay away from cigarettes. That makes us 15th among the states, which puts us in the top of the middle third of the pack -- an improved position from the last survey, but hardly the best we could do. If the incoming governor and General Assembly raised the cigarette tax a buck a pack, Maryland might at least push into the proud top 10.

The latest report, released Wednesday, looked at whether states are adequately funding prevention and cessation programs, as they had promised to do in the late 1990s. It found that only three states -- Maine, Delaware, Colorado -- meet minimum levels recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (I don't know anybody else around here, but I hate finishing a dozen lengths behind Delaware in anything!)

Still, while Maryland's efforts could be better, most of the rest of the nation has slacked off badly. The advocacy group's report says only 17 states fund tobacco prevention programs at even half the CDC's minimum recommendation, and five states -- Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire and Tennessee -- hardly bother at all. In June, the CDC reported that, since the 1998 tobacco settlement, the nation's steady decline in teen smoking has come to a standstill.

I dislike the phrase "no-brainer" because it's a copout, and because it's not true. Everything requires thought.

But it seems we have been thinking about this one for a long time and reached informed consensus about the dangers of cigarette smoking and the influence of advertising and other media on kids, in particular. This should be a nonpartisan issue. Making tobacco illegal is impractical. But smoking should be banned in public places, and taxes on tobacco products increased to fund prevention programs and health care.

The Republican governor of Indiana, among others, gets it.

Mitch Daniels' state went from sixth in prevention-and-cessation spending in 2003 to 27th in the recent survey.

According to The Indianapolis Star, the governor, a former adviser to two Republican presidents, wants to raise Indiana's 55.5-cents-per-pack cigarette tax by at least 25 cents and devote part of it to the fight against teen tobacco use. Most of the proposed tax increase in Indiana would go to government-subsidized health care for the low-income uninsured.

That's the same as the plan here, called the Healthy Maryland Initiative.

It calls for doubling the cigarette tax by raising it a buck and using the proceeds to make health care available to more Marylanders, increase funding for stop-smoking campaigns and drug abuse treatment programs. The proposal also contains innovative ideas for helping small businesses pay insurance costs for their workers.

Hundreds of groups -- religious, medical, business, labor, community, political -- support the proposal. Numerous studies show that, when taxes on cigarettes go up, the rate of smoking goes down. A legislative analysis said the new tax would raise $211 million. Advocates say it provides Maryland with a way to expand health coverage in the face of looming budget deficits.

Sounds like a whole carton of common sense.

However, as of last month, the incoming governor was standing off to the side, just as the Republican incumbent he defeated in the recent election did. (The last time we had a tax increase on cigarettes, Parris Glendening was governor.)

"We're not inclined to support it at this time," Martin O'Malley's spokesman, Rick Abbruzzese, told The Sun about three weeks ago. "The governor-elect is primarily focused on building a professional and competent state government."

Good. Nice to hear that. We're looking forward to StateStat, or MaryStat, whatever they call it.

But one could argue that "professional and competent state government" means doing something about the estimated 810,000 Marylanders without health insurance. Pointing to U.S. Census Bureau figures, the Maryland Health Care for All Coalition says another 800,000 Marylanders are underinsured. These numbers keep going up, not down. And state funding for drug treatment has been flat for three or four years now. These conditions are costly to the rest of us, in all kinds of ways.

Raise the tax on cigarettes -- and just this one time I'll give it up: No-brainer.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Hear Rodricks argue with Chip Franklin about the cigarette tax and other matters Tuesdays and Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., on "The Buzz" on WBAL Radio (1090 AM). Check out Dan's Man Law fun on his Random Rodricks Sun blog: http:--blogs.baltimoresun.com/ news_local_rodricks/

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