Additional 20-cent cigarette tax under consideration


ANNAPOLIS -- With the state increasingly strapped for cash, health organizations are promoting a 20-cent-per-pack increase in the cigarette excise tax as a tonic for the budget as well as the public health.

A coalition of doctors, childrens' advocates and legislators who support the measure are considering major concessions to get it passed.

Under the bill's current provisions, most of the $84 million it raises would be dedicated to health and smoking prevention programs. But Robin Shaivitz, a spokeswoman for the anti-smoking coalition, said that even if all the money ended up in the General Fund with no strings attached, the coalition would not object -- since that prospect provides the best leverage for the bill.

Currently, the 13-cent excise tax on cigarettes raises about $60 million a year, with about $13 million going to the counties and most of the rest to the state.

Traditionally, the Assembly has been unwilling to pass so-called dedicated taxes, so the bill is likely to meet opposition unless it is amended to remove the proposed uses. A hearing on the measure is scheduled for today in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Even without money for intensified programs to discourage smoking, the sponsors reckon, the increased cost of cigarettes would cause reductions in smoking of as much as 5 percent for adults and 17 percent for younger smokers, the primary target group.

The bill's chances are regarded as improved because Schaefer administration officials and legislators are increasingly concerned that a tax increase of some kind may be unavoidable. A tax on cigarettes -- a so-called sin tax -- might develop a following, if any tax can, according to the reasoning.

Health arguments alone have not always won the day for the anti-smoking forces, so help from the economy was welcomed. Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, said during a news conference yesterday that her group will continue to press what it regards as compelling life and death arguments.

"Smoking is the nation's most preventable health problem. It causes many types of cancer as well as heart disease, which is the No. 1 killer in Maryland and the United States," she said.

Recent figures from the National Cancer Institute reveal that Maryland now has the highest cancer rate in the United States, she noted.

Low birth weight, health professionals say, is directly traceable to smoking by expectant mothers. "Infants born to women who smoke during pregnancy have a doubled risk of low-birth weight," she said.

"An infant has a better chance of surviving to age 1 in Singapore thanin Maryland," she said. Senator Hoffman, who recently attended a conference on infant mortality in Richmond, Va., said that Baltimore has an infant mortality rate of more than 17 per thousand and that state health department officials say Singapore's rate is lower.

At the news conference, Delegate Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George's, the bill's House sponsor, predicted that the Tobacco Institute would vigorously oppose the bill.

"The institute wants to hold off the end of smoking for a few more years," he said.

The tobacco industry's prime spokesman in Annapolis, lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, said he regarded the bill's sponsors as enemies of free choice. He referred to them as "health police" and "proselytizers," and he called their bill "a tax on lifestyles."

"They're imposing their will on others," he said. "Its cruel."

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