More money up in smoke

Dollar-a-pack cigarette-tax increase meets with approval and outrage

December 30, 2007|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,Sun reporter

Smokers in Maryland will have to pay an extra buck to light up Tuesday when a $2 cigarette tax goes into effect statewide.

The $1-a-pack increase - passed into law last month during a special session of the Maryland General Assembly - means Maryland has, with five other states, the fourth-highest cigarette tax in the nation, according to data from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Maine and Michigan also have $2-a-pack levies.

Baltimore smokers interviewed yesterday had mixed emotions about the increase. While some said the extra $1 is a huge incentive to quit, others were outraged.

Vincent Hill, a commercial truck driver from Catonsville, said when he travels for work, he often buys cigarettes in Virginia to avoid Maryland's high taxes. The cigarette tax in Virginia is 30 cents.

"I mind [the increase], but under the circumstances that we're dealing with, what can we do?" said Hill, 58, referring to the state's budget deficit. "Something has to be done, and it has to be done on the back of the people."

Other smokers were adamantly opposed to the increase.

"I think it's totally ridiculous," said Charles Canty, 60, who was smoking outside of Lexington Market yesterday afternoon. He said he has smoked for more than 40 years.

"I'm a smoker, and it's just hard for me to give them up, so I guess I just have to pay," said Canty, of Sandtown.

He said he thinks the tax increase will hurt the poor more than anyone else.

"Most of the poor people smoke. They can't afford [cigarettes] now - that's why they're selling loose ones on the corner. ... People will go back to chewing snuff and chewing tobacco."

The tax increase does not include tobacco products other than cigarettes - an exclusion anti-tobacco advocates say might encourage cigarette smokers to switch to other cheaper tobacco products, such as Black & Milds, a cigar that is often sold individually for about $1.

"That's part of finishing the job - increasing the tax on all tobacco products," said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative. "The tax on noncigarette tobacco products would have been a good source of funding for tobacco-prevention programs."

DeMarco said the cigarette tax increase, however, should be praised. "It's great, and they've accomplished a lot," he said of the General Assembly. "Combined with the smoke-free workplace law, those two together are really going to save a lot of people from tobacco addiction. A lot of people are going to be encouraged to quit by the tax."

Sheila Smith, 47, of Franklintown agreed. She has been smoking Newports for about five years. Smith said she didn't know about the increase, but she plans to quit smoking because of it.

"Cigarettes will be $6," Smith said. "People are going to stop smoking."

Maryland has the ninth-highest smoking prevalence rate for both adults and high school-age children in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than 800,000 adults smoke here - almost 20 percent of the adult population, according to the CDC. Almost 20 percent of all high schoolers in the state - about 45,000 - smoke.

Annual smoking-related health care costs in Maryland total nearly $2 billion, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Maryland's new tax is almost 90 cents higher than the national average. New Jersey has the highest state cigarette tax at $2.575 per pack, and South Carolina the lowest at 7 cents. Before the increase, Maryland's tobacco tax was 26th-highest among states.

The change to Maryland's cigarette tax is part of a bill that increased tax revenue in the state by $1.3 billion to battle a looming deficit, including a 1 percentage point increase in sales and corporate income taxes.

Tobacco legislation in Maryland has long been contentious, but anti-tobacco forces have been enjoying success. Starting Feb. 1, all bars and restaurants in Maryland will be smoke-free.

In 1992, Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed into law the creation of the Cigarette Restitution Fund Program, which requires the state to use money from tobacco settlements for Medicaid, the government health care program for the poor, and for anti-tobacco education, health and agriculture, including a component that helps tobacco farmers plant other types of crops. One criticism of the fund by anti-tobacco advocates is that the bulk of the fund's money goes toward Medicaid.

In fiscal year 2008, $116 million of the fund's $194 million went to Medicaid, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The state now spends about $18 million on tobacco prevention programs, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

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