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Health advocates seek increase in tobacco tax

After successfully pushing a new dime-a-drink alcohol tax, health care advocates are advocating for a new $1 levy on tobacco.

That would bring the total to $3 for a pack of cigarettes, among the highest in the nation. A coalition led by the Maryland Citizens Health Initiative says the tax increase would further deter smoking.

"To demonstrate how effective tobacco taxes are, smoking rates have declined by 32.6 percent between 1998 and 2009, saving 70,000 people from preventable tobacco-related death," Vincent DeMarco, the group's president, said during a news conference Tuesday announcing the campaign.

The tobacco tax has been raised three times since 1999, most recently in 2007. The proposal to increase it again has received a cool reception from leaders in Annapolis.

"I think that particular tax has been raised as much as can be rationally explained or reasonably expected," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said there is "no chance" that an increase to the tax would receive serious consideration in the 2012 legislative session.

"Tobacco is heavily taxed as it is," said Busch, adding that smokers could drive to neighboring states to buy lower-cost cigarettes.

But coalition members say money raised could go toward health care programs and a further reduction in the smoking rate. In 2010, 15.2 percent of adults and 14.1 percent of high school students in Maryland were smokers, according to state data.

The state has been investing in recent years in cessation programs, including a quit line, counseling and free nicotine replacement therapy, though the amount dropped with the souring economy. A statewide ban on smoking in the workplace went into effect in 2008.

While tobacco use has been dropping nationwide, smoking and secondhand smoke still cause 443,000 deaths and $96 billion in related disease annually, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That's a cost of $10.47 per pack consumed when lost productivity is also considered. The average cost of a pack nationally is about $5.58.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids reports that Maryland has the 11th-highest tax, and only five states collect more than $3 a pack.

More than 150 businesses, churches, health care groups and other organizations are supporting an increase in Maryland, including the state medical society MedChi, AARP Maryland and the American Cancer Society.

"Only when the cost of a pack of cigarettes includes its health care costs to society will a smoker understand the true cost of this deadly habit," said Dr. David Hexter, immediate past president of MedChi.

The alcohol tax passed in this year's legislative session, with about 80 percent of the funds in the first year slated for school construction and the remainder benefiting the developmentally disabled.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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