Bid afoot in Maryland to raise tax on cigars and more

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The price of cigars in Maryland could go up soon if one of the state’s most prominent health advocates has his way.

Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, says he will push the General Assembly in January to increase the state’s 15 percent excise tax on cigars and smokeless tobacco — a rate that has not changed since 1999.

Supporters of an increase say it will deter underage smokers who increasingly have turned to cigars and chewing tobacco as cheaper alternatives to cigarettes, but opponents say the added tax will be nothing more than a drain on local businesses.

“Anything that is going to stop young people from smoking is a good thing,” Mr. DeMarco said. “I think it’s clear that this is good policy and good politics.”

Mr. DeMarco has long championed so-called “sin taxes” in Maryland as an effective way to discourage unhealthy behaviors, and he was the main lobbyist behind this year’s increase in the alcohol tax from 6 percent to 9 percent.

He has been a strong advocate for increasing the state’s cigarette tax, which has been raised three times since 1999, from 36 cents to $2 a pack. Meanwhile, the state’s excise tax on other tobacco products (OTP) — which include cigars and smokeless tobacco — has remained steady at 15 percent.

Mr. DeMarco said he initially set a target of passing cigarette and OTP tax increases during the 2015 General Assembly but thinks an OTP tax hike can pass next year.

He said more than 100 community groups support an increase and that momentum has grown in recent weeks as a study by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene showed that cigarette smoking is down among Maryland teenagers but cigar smoking has increased substantially.

He added that a survey of Maryland voters performed this fall by the polling firm Opinion Works found that 72 percent favored increasing the OTP tax and 54 “strongly” favored the hike.

“I think we need to consider any reasonable measure that’s going to prevent and deter kids from smoking,” said Delegate Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg, Baltimore Democrat and member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which would consider such a proposal. “Cigars are becoming a gateway for kids, and that’s a real concern.”

The proposal is likely to face stiff resistance from state tobacco lobbyists, and some lawmakers worry that a bill to increase cigar and smokeless tobacco taxes would not change behavior but instead would lead buyers to purchase items online or from bordering states.

A Maryland law went into effect this year banning online cigar purchases, but Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot, a Democrat, received complaints from many smokers and agreed not to enforce the law until the assembly can reconsider it.

“Virginia and West Virginia love Vinnie DeMarco, because he drives business into their states,” said Sen. David R. Brinkley, Frederick Republican. “We’ll still have the social costs but won’t get any of the revenue.”

Rome Zaffaroni, owner of Annapolis Cigar Co., said a tax increase would cost him money and could cost some people their jobs. He added that he thinks cigars, which often are thought to be luxury items that take less of a public health toll than cigarettes or alcohol, should not be subject to sin taxes.

“Politicians want to treat us as their ATM machines,” he said. “They should learn how to make money honestly and stay within their budget. How many people have killed people with their car after smoking a cigar?”

Mr. DeMarco said he has yet to find lead sponsors for his legislation but he could turn to Sen. Jennie M. Forehand or Delegate Sheila E. Hixson, Montgomery Democrats who unsuccessfully sponsored tobacco-tax increases last session.

Ms. Hixson, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said she is uncertain whether she would sponsor such a bill and will have to weigh the state’s overall tax situation before deciding.

“I know there are health reasons, but I have to see the whole picture before I can make any determination,” she said.

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