Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said yesterday he supports doubling the state tax on cigarettes to $2 a pack, and would use the revenue to fund medical care for low-income families and children if elected governor.
"What good is having the best health care in the world if people can't access it?" said Duncan, a Democrat, as he unveiled his campaign's health care proposal yesterday. "A healthy society benefits us all, so government has a role and a responsibility to do what it can to achieve that goal."
Duncan is the lone candidate for governor to support higher cigarette taxes. The $200 million that the tax increase would generate, he said, would enroll 30,000 uninsured children in health care programs, double the income limit for Medicaid eligibility, boost funding for drug treatment programs by $32 million, help small businesses insure employees, lower prescription drug costs and guarantee access to abortion services and birth control, according to the campaign plan.
Duncan's proposal embraces all the tenets of a health care plan developed by a coalition of religious groups, community health organizations and labor unions known as the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative. One element of the coalition's plan became law this year when the General Assembly adopted a bill over the veto of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. requiring Wal-Mart to increase spending on employee health care in Maryland or pay a tax to the state.
Flanked by running mate Stuart O. Simms, and coalition president Vincent DeMarco, Duncan criticized his opponents' health care plans, which he characterized as "two-page press releases."
But Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's campaign said that Duncan's proposal sounded familiar, claiming that Duncan borrowed much of the Baltimore mayor's health plan.
"We are pleased that Doug has endorsed so many of the health care ideas that Martin O'Malley and [running mate Del. Anthony G.] Brown have been talking about for months," said Hari Sevugan, a spokesman with the O'Malley campaign.
Sevugan said O'Malley does not support a tobacco tax increase.
"I think we owe it to Marylanders to exhaust health care cost saving options such as improving small business purchasing pools and reducing costly medical errors before we think about raising a tax that is already among the highest in the nation," Sevugan said.
Maryland's $1-per-pack tax currently ranks 19th-highest in the country, DeMarco said. If Duncan's plan were accepted, only three states would have a higher tax than Maryland.
Ehrlich also opposes a cigarette tax increase. "The governor has always been on the side of lower taxes, and Doug Duncan has always been on the side of higher taxes," said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor. "It's just bad policy. All it does is just force people to travel out of state to buy cigarettes."
The governor has increased funding for and access to health care without raising taxes, Fawell said. The increased tax could harm small convenience stores and gas stations, said Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Tobacco & Candy Distributors.
He characterized Duncan's stance as "typical Montgomery County anti-business philosophy."
"I recognize that some might have a problem with this," Duncan said of the tax. "But I will tell you this: I'll support a revenue source that saves lives, rather than one that destroys lives."
Despite last year's failure of the Healthy Maryland Initiative in the legislature, Duncan is hopeful that his bill will be passed.
Said Duncan: "I think there's going to be a lot of support in the General Assembly for this as a way to improve health care for the state."