- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2001

ANNAPOLIS Marylanders could be paying more for cigarettes than anyone in the nation next year if a coalition of health care and anti-smoking activists get their way.

The 70-cent-per-pack increase in the tobacco tax they seek would take Maryland's levy from 66 cents to $1.36 and from the 12th-highest to the highest among all 50 states and the District.

"It's a campaign to finish the job begun in 1999," said Vincent DeMarco, executive director of the Maryland Citizens' Health Care Initiative, referring to efforts that year to raise the tax by $1 that netted a 30-cent increase.

The new push is a collaborative effort joining Mr. DeMarco's group, whose mission is statewide universal health care coverage, with Smoke Free Maryland, a coalition working to reduce tobacco-related illness, and MedChi, Maryland's medical society.

"Over 60 Maryland children are becoming addicted to tobacco products every day," Michaeline Fedder, president of Smoke Free Maryland, said yesterday at an event announcing the renewed effort.

Their goals are to continue to reduce the number of people who smoke, particularly teen-agers, and to fund access to health care.

At an event announcing the new tax-increase campaign yesterday, the group credited the 1999 tax increase with reducing cigarette sales almost 16 percent.

But opponents say many Marylanders are buying their cigarettes in neighboring jurisdictions.

They say the higher tax would increase temptation for Maryland smokers to buy cigarettes elsewhere, particularly in Virginia, which has the lowest tobacco tax in the country at 2.5 cents per pack.

"I just hope nobody looks at the stamp on the bottom of the cigarettes I smoke," said House Majority Whip George W. Owings III, a Democrat who represents Calvert and Anne Arundel counties, referring to the green Virginia tax mark on his pack of Carltons.

His Virginia relatives visit often, Mr. Owens said.

Maryland residents are allowed to bring in only two packs per trip from outside the state under current law, said Michael Golden, spokesman for the comptroller's office, which collects the tobacco tax and enforces that law.

Informal surveys of smokers in the Washington suburbs and other border areas indicate many smokers are not limiting their out-of-state cigarette shopping to the legal limit.

Mr. Owings and legislators sympathetic to smokers and the shrinking ranks of Maryland tobacco farmers can be expected to oppose the increase again, as they did in 1999.

But the proposal could find added support if an economic slowdown causes state revenues to decline.

The 30-cent increase enacted in 1999 brought in an additional $80 million annually, and a 70-cent increase could generate $200 million more per year, advocates said.

And, by the end of this month, about 600 of the remaining 800 tobacco growers in Maryland are expected to have applied for a buyout, funded with proceeds from the state's share of a national settlement with the tobacco industry, said Donald Vandrey, spokesman for the agriculture department.

"Sin taxes are far and away the most popular revenue raisers," said Eric Gally, who lobbied for the tobacco-tax increase in 1999.

But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who was key to ensuring that the full $1 increase was not approved then, said he's not prepared to back a higher tax now.

"There's no need to raise taxes at this time for any reason," said Mr. Miller, a Democrat whose district includes tobacco-growing areas in Prince George's, Calvert and Anne Arundel counties.

However, Mr. Miller said, legislators are going to be looking to "sin taxes" first and "anywhere and everywhere if the state is in a sustained economic slowdown."

Mr. Gally said chances for getting a substantial tobacco-tax increase would go up with the size of the state deficit.

The legislature's fiscal analysts project Maryland could face a $300 million deficit next year.

All state offices are up for election next year and advocates will, as they did before the 1998 election, ask candidates to pledge their support for the increase, Mr. DeMarco said. "If this does not pass in the 2002 session, it will be an issue in the election," he said.

Mr. DeMarco said his group will present proposals for expanding health care coverage using revenue from an increased tobacco tax and other sources.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening made a $1 increase in the tobacco tax part of his agenda in 1999, but he also said he would not come back asking for more, his spokesman Mike Morrill said.

Revenue from the tobacco tax goes to the state's general fund, which is tapped for a wide range of programs.

While Mr. Glendening supports increasing health care access, he wants to be sure any expansion is built on sustainable revenue sources, Mr. Morrill said.

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