- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Maryland health advocate who fought successfully this year for an increase in the state’s alcohol sales tax is pushing for a tax increase on cigarettes.

Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, says the group will start a campaign next week asking the General Assembly to increase the state’s $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes to $3 and raise taxes on other tobacco products, including cigars and smokeless tobacco.

Mr. DeMarco — a health lobbyist who has long championed so-called “sin taxes” on tobacco and alcohol — hopes to build on momentum from this year’s assembly, in which legislators voted to increase the state’s alcohol sales tax from 6 percent to 9 percent after several years of lobbying.

“It’s a great public-health measure. Our goal would be that all smokers would stop smoking,” he said Thursday, adding that more than 100 community groups already have backed the tobacco-tax proposal. “Many smokers appreciate increases in the tobacco tax to help them quit.”

Maryland taxed smokers just 36 cents a pack on cigarettes before 1999, when the rate was increased to 66 cents. A second increase moved the rate to $1 in 2002, and state lawmakers again raised the tax, to $2 a pack, during their 2007 special session.

The state’s $2 rate on cigarettes is tied for 11th highest in the country, according to the Federation of Tax Administrators. The District tax is $2.50 a pack, while Pennsylvania and Delaware charge $1.60 and Virginia charges 30 cents — the second-lowest rate in the country behind Missouri’s 17 cents.

New York has the highest tax rate on cigarettes at $4.35 a pack.

Mr. DeMarco said he would like to see a tax increase passed as early as next year’s regular session, but that could prove to be a tall order, said Delegate Jolene Ivey, Prince George’s Democrat.

“Once you do something like raise a particular tax, it’s a long time before it’s raised again,” said Mrs. Ivey, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which would have to approve the increase. “I don’t see it passing next year or in the foreseeable future.”

Advocates for cigarette-tax increases say they have helped reduce smoking in Maryland by 32 percent over the past decade — more than twice the national average. They also say more expensive tobacco products have improved statewide health and lowered medical costs, while still bringing in added tax revenue for the state.

Critics have argued that such tax increases put a strain on smokers’ personal expenses and harm Maryland businesses by forcing residents to buy their tobacco products in other states.

In addition to raising the price of cigarettes, Mr. DeMarco said, his group’s proposal also would increase the current 15-percent excise tax on other tobacco products (OTP). The 15-percent rate was instituted in 1999 and has since gone unchanged — a development that he argues has allowed underage smokers to pursue cigars and smokeless tobacco as cheaper alternatives to cigarettes.

“We adamantly oppose it, especially in a state as small as Maryland,” said Chris McCalla, spokesman for the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association. “It’s nothing for a consumer to drive 30, 40 minutes into the District or Pennsylvania to buy their cigars.”

Mr. DeMarco said his group has yet to target a specific OTP rate increase but its final proposal could be similar to an unsuccessful bill introduced last session by Delegate Sheila E. Hixson, Montgomery Democrat, that would have raised the cigarette tax to $3 and the OTP excise tax from 15 percent to 95 percent, with a $3 cap on taxes applied to cigars.

Analysts estimated the increases would have brought the state $53 million in revenue in their first year.