RAISING MARYLAND'S tax on cigarettes by $1 a pack over two years isn't designed primarily to raise more revenue for the state. The main goal is discouraging smoking among this state's teen-agers.
Sound evidence suggests that higher cigarette prices do, indeed, deter teen smoking by pricing teens out of the market. This is important in a state where one-third of high school students say they smoke regularly.
These statistics pose an alarming public-health problem in the decades ahead. Smoking is a leading cause of lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening's tax-increase proposal is aimed at deterring teens from becoming tobacco addicts. Other states, and other countries, have found that when taxes on cigarettes are increased, the number of minors who light up declines. And studies have long found that those who don't smoke as teens are less likely to smoke as adults.
Two states that have imposed a 25-cent-a-pack tax increase -- California and Massachusetts -- either prevented increases in teen smoking or slightly reduced it.
Canada saw a dramatic drop in teen smoking when it raised its tax substantially and an increase when it later decreased the tax.
As cigarette prices rise, price-sensitive teens cut back on their smoking. They aren't as addicted to tobacco as adults, which makes it easier for them to quit.
Studies show that for every 10 percent increase in tobacco prices, teen smoking drops as much as 7 percent. The governor's proposal -- which would add $1 more to a $3 pack of cigarettes -- could substantially reduce the number of Maryland teen smokers.
Opponents express alarm about cigarette smuggling. But they ignore the danger to public health posed by growing numbers of young smokers.
Passing a significant cigarette tax increase this legislative session -- the first hearing takes place Wednesday -- will be difficult, despite the many lawmakers who pledged in last year's election to support such a move. The biggest stumbling block is Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who represents tobacco farmers.
Lawmakers' first priority should be to look out for Maryland's future adults. It's the kids who count on this issue.
Pub Date: 2/15/99