Low-taxed tobacco

December 26, 2007

A pack of five apple-flavored Black & Mild little cigars costs slightly less than a pack of cigarettes. Next month, it will cost a lot less. That's because while Gov. Martin O'Malley and the Maryland General Assembly chose to raise the tax on a pack of cigarettes by one dollar during this fall's special session, they neglected to raise taxes for any other form of tobacco.

It's a glaring omission that needs to be corrected as soon as possible. Cigars, pipe tobacco, snuff and the like raise many of the same health concerns that cigarettes do. A little cigar, for instance, is inhaled just like a cigarette (an unfiltered one, at that), and because it contains five to 17 times as much tobacco, it can deliver far more nicotine.

Yet little cigars and other forms of non-cigarette tobacco sold in Maryland face a 15 percent wholesale tax, a far cry from the $2 per pack tax that cigarettes fall under beginning Jan. 1. Anti-smoking advocates say the other tobacco tax would have to be at least five times greater to be equivalent.

Why wasn't the tax raised? Lawmakers were likely sympathetic to mom-and-pop tobacconists who would be hit hard - and because it doesn't raise nearly as much money for the state as the tax on cigarettes.

But it's also an incredibly shortsighted decision. If the point of raising a sin tax is to discourage tobacco's use, then tobacco vendors are bound to be hurt. Otherwise, the state is merely encouraging nicotine addicts to switch from cigarettes to something else.

Little cigars are a likely choice for some smokers. Not only is a pack relatively cheap, but they can also be sold individually, an attractive feature in low-income neighborhoods. Baltimore's health commissioner recently raised an alarm over the growing popularity of little cigars among young African-Americans.

Lawmakers need to increase the tobacco tax to at least 40 percent of wholesale prices. That would make it roughly equivalent to the $1 per pack cigarette tax, and it's the level that legislators considered early this year when the tax was first debated as a means to pay for expanded health care.

The higher tax would raise about $15 million annually. That's money badly needed to bolster the state's now-minimal tobacco control efforts. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends Maryland spend at least $46.8 million annually to discourage smoking and help users quit, but after recent budget cuts, the state's current program amounts to less than $18 million.

The point of a high tax on cigarettes is not merely to balance the state budget; it's to discourage people from buying them at all. Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death and disease in this country. A tax policy that fails to discourage all types of tobacco use demonstrates a disregard for public health.

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