Anti-tobacco activists turn out to support cigarette tax plan; Legislators might seek compromise on increase


Marsha Lapin testified in favor of the governor's proposed tobacco tax increase yesterday, but not in her own voice.

The Ellicott City woman's words were read to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee in the gravelly Boston accent of her widower, Joel Lapin. Marsha Lapin died Sept. 7 of lung cancer at age 49.

Joel Lapin was one of almost two dozen anti-tobacco activists who went to Annapolis to square off against opponents of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's plan to raise cigarette taxes by $1 a pack. The hearing occurred amid indications that legislators are groping for a compromise that might involve a smaller increase.

The testimony Lapin delivered was the same statement his wife made last year to a House of Delegates committee. It told the story of a girl who started smoking at age 12, and went on to urge legislators to pass a tax stiff enough to discourage young people from using tobacco.

"Had such a tax been in effect when I started smoking in my teen years, I would not have been able to afford buying cigarettes, which would have increased the likelihood that I never would have smoked," Lapin read in his wife's words.

High school students, religious groups, health professionals, educators and administration officials joined Lapin in urging the panel to approve the increase in the state's 36-cents-a-pack cigarette tax -- a centerpiece of the governor's legislative agenda.

They were opposed by Southern Maryland farmers, distributors and manufacturers.

Frank Falter, who owns a wholesale tobacco distribution company in Baltimore, warned that the tax increase would make tobacco so expensive it would encourage crime.

"You've got to consider bootlegging. You're going to cause the gas stations to be held up at gunpoint," said Falter.

But Michelle McGrath, representing the Maryland Association of Student Councils, said the proposed tax could have a positive impact among her teen-age co-workers at a local coffee shop.

"There are some of them who say they're not going to be able to afford it any more," said McGrath, a senior at Broadneck High School in Annapolis.

Some legislative leaders are beginning to talk about a compromise in the range of a 25-cent increase this year. Glendening has built the first 50 cents of his proposed increase into his budget for next year, making it difficult for lawmakers to know how much money can be spent until the issue is resolved.

Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a co-sponsor of the $1 tax increase, said she will meet with Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings this week to discuss possible approaches.

Hixson said she is confident the $1 increase would pass the Ways and Means Committee, of which she is chairwoman, but said she wants to produce a bill acceptable to the full House.

The Montgomery Democrat expressed skepticism that a 25-cent increase would be sufficient to deter teens from smoking -- the stated purpose of the bill. "It's taken on a life of its own as a big piece of the budget," Hixson said.

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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