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Cigarette taxes saved my kids' lives

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Another cigarette tax proposal is coming our way — and I'm all for it.

As a father, a clergyman and a member of the community, I wholeheartedly support the new Healthy Maryland Initiative proposal to discourage tobacco use through cigarette tax increases. It's good economic and health policy, and on a personal level, I believe such taxes have helped save two of my children's lives. I'm grateful.

The measure is straightforward: one more dollar on each pack of cigarettes sold in Maryland, with revenues going to smoking cessation and health care. Some will say it's too burdensome, or simply too much. I disagree and believe it will help the very people who are being used to rally the opposition.

My experience tells me this additional tax is the right thing to do — and how vital it can be to influencing some young people's choices.

Both my wife and I were born shortly after the Second World War, in a generation that believed that there was no inherent problem with smoking. Each of us can remember walking into restaurants where the air was blue, and thinking nothing of it except that our eyes would be red and our clothing would smell for a few hours. But despite the time in which we were born, neither of us chose to begin smoking. As more information came out, we were happy we'd refrained.

Since no one smoked in our house, we assumed our children, educated early about the dangers of smoking, wouldn't smoke either. Our daughter didn't, but our two boys both took up the habit in their early teens. At first they told us that the smoky smell in their clothing came from "friends" who smoked. Having grown up when we did, we believed them. We encouraged them to work on their choice of friends, but eventually it became more and more obvious that the smoking "friends" included the boys.

Joe Camel paraphernalia appeared around the house, and there were inexplicable burn marks in clothing, and later the car. Both boys started working early, so they had an income stream to pay for cigarettes. Often they worked out of doors and thus had no problem smoking on the job.

We, and their doctor, encouraged them to give up this harmful habit, but we didn't make headway. That was until our younger son went to college. Even though he had a job at school, he quickly decided that smoking was too expensive for him, and he quit cold turkey.

Our older son, who had started to smoke earlier, continued for some time after his brother gave it up. He tried to stop at least once, but eventually after about a year went back to it. Ultimately, he said what got him to stop was the price increase that came when the state tax on cigarettes was raised. So essentially it was economics that drove both of my sons away from smoking. Thank the Lord — and thank the governor and General Assembly.

When I went to Annapolis to testify this past session in favor of raising the tax on the little flavored cigars that were very inexpensive then (but whose prices have gone up thanks to a new tax increase this year), one of the delegates asked me if I didn't see this as a regressive tax. I had to agree that a tax on these cheap cigars does disproportionately affect poorer people, but these are the same people who struggle to find health insurance coverage. They are also the people whose health would benefit most if they were to stop smoking.

And children are so at risk. My daughter, who teaches elementary school in Baltimore City, says flavored cigar packages litter the ground around her school. Like Joe Camel in the 1990s, these products entice children. Thankfully, the new tax will discourage their use.

It's time again to discourage cigarette smoking and reap the benefits in health and wealth. Over the past decade, three cigarette tax increases have decreased teen smoking by over a third since their imposition, saving tens of thousands of lives. I've learned that young people have banded together in support of the latest Healthy Maryland Initiative; the Maryland Association of Student Councils has just signed on. It makes me think of my own sons, who needed an incentive to kick their smoking habits. Yes, let's raise the tobacco tax again. And let's save more lives.

The Rev. Fred Weimert is pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Towson and is board chair of the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council. The new Healthy Maryland Initiative can be found at http://www.HealthCareforAll.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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