Smoker Owens backs $1 cigarette tax boost; County executive, owner of tobacco farm, leads no-smoking push


Anti-smoking activists found an unusual spokeswoman yesterday to lobby for a proposed increase in the cigarette tax: a tobacco farm owner who is addicted to the weed.

Leading the drive against teen-age smoking is Janet S. Owens, the Anne Arundel County executive, whose family has raised tobacco for generations in Bristol and who says she and her 18-year-old son smoke.

Standing beside the widow of a cancer victim and wearing a button reading "Save Our Children from Big Tobacco," Owens supported legislation proposed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening that would raise the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $1.

More than 30 people attended the news conference in the lobby of the Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis. The event was organized by the Maryland Children's Initiative, a Baltimore-based anti-smoking organization.

Owens and hospital officials said they hope to persuade state legislators to back the tax increase when the General Assembly begins its session today.

"Obviously, we must do something to discourage teen-agers from buying cigarettes," Owens said. "Even my son is now a smoker. He is 18 years old, and he is an athlete, a water polo player. And yet he is a secret smoker. I said to him, 'Why do it?' And he said, 'Because all the other kids are doing it.' "

That Owens smokes and rents her family's land in Bristol to a tobacco farmer suggests how deeply tobacco is woven into the lives of even some of those who campaign for limits on the industry.

Owens said she wants the tax in- crease but worries about the impact it might have on small tobacco farmers like those she grew up with.

Vincent DeMarco, executive director of the Maryland Children's Initiative, said he doesn't find it contradictory that Owens would campaign against smoking while smoking herself and renting land to a tobacco farmer.

'A horrible addiction'

"This is a horrible addiction, and smokers like the county executive know more than anybody else how difficult it is to stop," DeMarco said. "We do not consider the tobacco farmers in any way our enemy. They are stuck in the middle like everyone else. We applaud Janet Owens for sticking up for what's right."

Owens' spokesman, Andrew C. Carpenter, also smokes.

After the emotional testimony of cancer survivors at yesterday's anti-smoking rally, Carpenter said he has smoked for 27 years.

"I smoke about six cigarettes on the way to work, while drinking my coffee," said the 45-year-old former reporter. "When I'm at the office, I go out to the loading dock to smoke. But Monday is quitting day for me and my wife. That's it."

'Cost is unbelievable'

Dr. Stanley Watkins, director of the oncology center at the hospital, said during yesterday's rally that he doesn't think smoking is a problem only for the young.

"We see too many victims of tobacco addiction that suffer and die at this hospital," said Watkins. "Cigarettes cause lung cancer and the cost of this is just unbelievable. Everyone in this room is paying $596 a year for the medical costs of cigarettes. That's $1.8 billion a year for Maryland."

John Ryan, an Annapolis attorney, stood beside Owens to tell how his family was devastated by smoking.

Ryan said his father, Richard, became addicted during World War II because the Navy distributed free cigarettes and sailors found smoking one of the few ways to combat the boredom of long cruises.

A father of seven who was once an athletic 6-foot-4, Richard Ryan shriveled to less than 130 pounds after he contracted cancer in the early 1990s. Surgeons removed his vocal cords before he died in March 1995.

"Despite the void his death left in our lives, we were all relieved to see him go. The sight of the most impressive man we had ever known being utterly destroyed by tobacco was unbearable," John Ryan said.

'Best thing is to never start

In an interview after the event, Owens said she started smoking in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as a way to stay awake without drinking coffee.

"I've tried to stop several times, but it just hasn't worked," she said. "The best thing is to never start."

Owens, who was born on a 185-acre tobacco farm in southern Anne Arundel County that her family has owned since before the Civil War, said she will continue to rent some of her land to a tobacco farmer because she doesn't want to hurt him financially.

"He's 82 years old," she said of the tenant farmer. "This has been his whole life. He's the last of a dying breed. I can't take that away from him."

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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