Kicking off a grass-roots campaign for a $1-a-pack increase in the state cigarette tax, Howard County activists employed a new weapon yesterday in their battle against the tobacco industry: children.
About 50 Wilde Lake High School students -- joined by Democratic County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, and Bev Wilhide, an assistant to County Executive James N. Robey -- urged members of the General Assembly to pass tax-increase legislation.
"All of us are all too aware that teen smoking is a problem in Columbia, Howard County, Maryland, and the country," said Rebecca Gifford, a senior at the school and a representative of the Maryland Association of Student Councils' executive board. "I'm proud to announce that everyone here has come together to support a solution to the problem."
The bill would increase taxes on cigarettes by 50 cents a pack each year over the next two years. Although no public hearing has been set, the legislation has the support of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, 23 state senators and 48 state delegates, according to Vincent DeMarco, executive director of the Maryland
Children's Initiative, a coalition of 300 organizations working to reduce teen smoking.
"They used to say that it was a politically difficult thing to vote against tobacco," DeMarco said. "Legislators, it's a politically difficult thing to vote against the citizens."
Howard County has one of the toughest anti-smoking laws on the East Coast.
Yesterday, at an informal lunch with Robey, the governor expressed his thanks for a joint resolution from Robey and three members of the County Council supporting the tax proposal.
Glendening said the tobacco tax vote "is never an easy vote, but it's the right thing to do to protect the health of our children."
Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill whose district includes Wilde Lake, said the legislation is designed to protect the tobacco industry's target audience.
"The facts show that very, very clearly Big Tobacco has written in their plans to get and hook people at your age and to hook you for life," Bobo told the students. "Will [the bill] stop smoking? Of course not, but it will cut back on it."
Gifford said the tax increase would likely discourage teens from smoking. "The more expensive it is, the less chance of us buying it," she said.
The Wilde Lake students stood in solemn silence in the Columbia high school's media center as their peers, politicians and school officials kicked off the campaign.
The most poignant moment came when Joel Lapin addressed the students. Lapin, whose wife of 16 years, Marsha, died in September of lung cancer at the age of 49, pleaded with the students to avoid smoking.
"Please, for those that love you and for those you love, do two things," Lapin said. "Continue your pledge not to smoke and do the right thing: Keep up the good work."
Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 1/26/99