It took months of lecturing by his mother to make John Makowski give up snuff last month.
The 17-year-old Crofton resident was attracted to it by his peers, by the coolness of it, and by the high he'd get every time he stuffed a wad of mint-flavored tobacco between his cheek and gum.
"It's a growing thing," said the Anne Arundel High School senior, "and it's easier to get than cigarettes." In a legislative session where talk has focused exclusively on cutting taxes, some lawmakers in Annapolis have discovered one they like -- a 25 percent wholesale tax on smokeless tobacco.
Maryland is one of 11 states that, along with the District of TC Columbia, impose no tax on smokeless products such as chewing tobacco or snuff. Contrast that with cigarettes, which get slapped with a 24-cent federal tax and a 36-cent state tax on each pack.
Under legislation that received preliminary approval in the state Senate this week, most of the $1.4 million raised annually by the tax would be used for radio and television ads warning of smokeless tobacco's dangers.
Members of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee said they had no interest in the bill until they heard from teen-agers, doctors and anti-tobacco lobbyists who told them about the dangers posed to children. Consequently, it has become the only new tax the committee has endorsed this session.
New products, like a cherry-flavored snuff, are attracting more young people to the habit. An estimated 3 million of the 12 million users nationally are under age 21, including 16 percent of all males between the ages of 12 and 17.
"The testimony was amazing," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat. "I mean, cherry flavor? Who are they after? Grown-ups? Hardly. They want to sell to kids who see ballplayers use it."
The average age for snuff initiation is just 9 1/2 years, according to a 1992 surgeon general's report. Doctors have linked smokeless tobacco to oral cancer, a disease that will kill about 9,400 people in the United States this year.
"It's one of those things that has not been well publicized," said Dr. Michael D. Maves, executive vice president of the Academy of Otolaryngology in Arlington, Va. "People think you can only get cancer from smoking. The risk with smokeless tobacco is as great if not greater."
Smokeless tobacco is actually more addictive than cigarettes because the nicotine concentration is higher. A long-term snuff user is 50 times more likely to develop mouth cancer, health experts warn.
"Raising the price can be an effective way to keep kids from getting started," said Eric Gally of the American Cancer Society's Maryland chapter. "One reason you tax cigarettes is to make up for the health costs to society, and it makes sense to do the same for smokeless tobacco."
At Arundel High School, snuff and chewing tobacco are banned, but that hasn't prevented some students from sneaking it into school or sneaking out to use "spit tobacco" in the parking lot. Teachers say they can usually spot the tell-tale ring on the back pocket of a young man's jeans where a round tin of Skoal or Copenhagen has left an imprint. A 1.2-ounce can of snuff typically costs between $2.50 and $3.
"The nicotine buzz, the manly image, that's the basic ideas that guys are trying to create," said Bernard P. Walter Jr., the school's athletic director and baseball coach. "They haven't been educated about the dangers. We haven't gotten that word out."
Representatives of the Smokeless Tobacco Council, the organization which represents the $1.6 billion industry in Washington, did not return a reporter's telephone calls this week. The organization's Annapolis lobbyist also failed to respond to repeated inquiries.
Bruce C. Bereano, an Annapolis lobbyist who represents tobacco wholesalers, said the proposed tax is unfair and unnecessary because minors are already prohibited from buying using tobacco.
"The argument that some products are aimed at minors is ridiculous," Mr. Bereano said. "Every product has variations -- scented toilet paper, cherry soda. Just because it's flavored doesn't mean it's a deliberate effort to go after kids."
Even if the measure passes the Senate, it faces an uncertain future in the House of Delegates and likely opposition from Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has pledged not to raise any taxes this session.
Charles F. Porcari, a spokesman for Mr. Glendening, said that, despite the governor's hard-line approach to smoking in the workplace, he does not support the proposed tax. He declined to speculate on whether the governor might veto such a bill.
"The governor's position on tax increases is clear," Mr. Porcari said. "The governor will hold the line on taxes, period."
Still, supporters of the tax point out that Mr. Glendening was initially skeptical of the workplace smoking ban. It is difficult not to be moved by witnesses like Geoffrey B. Smoot, an Eastern Shore resident who lost his brother, Steve, a longtime snuff-dipper, to oral cancer.
"He developed cancer in the spot in his mouth where he put his snuff," said Mr. Smoot, a former high school baseball coach. "It just amazes me that there's no tax on something like that."