Ads to push higher cigarette tax

Groups want $1-a-pack increase devoted to expanded health care coverage

January 10, 2007|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,sun reporter

In an early push to get health care at the top of the legislative agenda in Annapolis, a broad coalition that includes AARP and labor officials announced yesterday an advertising and direct-mail campaign for a plan that would double Maryland's cigarette tax and use the proceeds to expand coverage for the uninsured.

AARP, the lobby for older Americans, launched a 60-second commercial that will air for 10 days on three area radio stations, while the 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East is mailing 350,000 leaflets urging recipients to return an enclosed card to their state representatives. The union targeted 15 districts of key legislators, and women and seniors who are more likely to mail the card.

The proposal, dubbed the Healthy Maryland Initiative, would use a $1-a-pack tax increase to fund an expansion of Medicaid for low-income adults, drug treatment and a pilot program to help small businesses with health insurance costs.

Other legislative plans, some of which share similar elements, are also taking shape as this year's General Assembly session opens today. The cigarette tax increase had been proposed before, but this year supporters are hoping it gains traction after an election in which health care was high on voters' minds. An AARP survey last year, for instance, found that 86 percent of its members in Maryland said that expanding health insurance coverage for the uninsured should be a priority.

Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, said his group started asking legislators to endorse the tax proposal before the election. The Associated Black Charities and Baltimore Jewish Council also support it. And now nearly half of the state's legislators back it, he said.

"The wagon is leading the horses on this one," said Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat and one of the backers. "This is a good example of how citizens can affect public policy."

The $11,000 AARP ad, which can be heard on WBAL, WWIN AM and FM, and WOLB, is timed to coincide with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Monday. The narrator is Bishop Douglas Miles, a Baltimore religious leader. In the spot, he quotes King, saying, "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane."

The cigarette tax increase would raise an estimated $211 million in the first year and at least $170 million each subsequent year. The funding would be used to provide health care coverage to about 62,000 uninsured Marylanders. It also would be dedicated to tobacco use prevention and cessation programs.

"This is the year of health care in Maryland," DeMarco said. "It's smart policy and smart politics, and there's a powerful coalition saying, `Do it this year.'"

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