- The Washington Times - Friday, November 9, 2001

Maryland anti-smoking activists who support a 70 cent per-pack tax increase on cigarettes say their cause got a boost from Washington state voters, who overwhelmingly approved a measure making their cigarette tax the nation's highest.
Proponents say polls showed 61 percent of Maryland voters supported a $1.50 per-pack increase in 1998, mirroring the 65 percent of Washington voters who backed the state's 60-cents per-pack increase in Tuesday's elections.
"When you have 65 percent support, you've definitely crossed party lines and demographics that's a huge push for a tobacco-tax increase in Maryland," said Vincent DeMarco, executive director of the Maryland Citizens' Health Care Initiative, which announced in April that it would make its proposal for a 70-cents per-pack cigarette-tax increase a major issue in the 2002 general election.
A 70-cent increase, added to the 30-cent increase legislators approved in 1999, would raise Maryland's cigarette tax to $1.36 per pack less than voters polled in 1998 supported.
Washington voters approved a $1.425 per-pack tax, but they chose to limit property-tax increases in another ballot question Tuesday. That underscores "the popularity of increasing the cigarette tax, even in a generally anti-tax environment," said Matthew L. Myers, president of the D.C.-based national Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
"Elected officials across the nation should seize the opportunity presented by cigarette-tax increases to solve both the public health and budgetary challenges they face," Mr. Myers said in a statement Wednesday.
Both the Maryland proposal and the Washington state proposal direct revenue from a tobacco-tax increase to expanding health care for low-income, uninsured residents.
Maryland faces a $1.7 billion budget shortfall by 2003 and $770 million shortfall even if it depletes all uncommitted cash in its general fund and "Rainy Day" reserve, the legislature's top fiscal analyst reported nine days ago.
Funding for Medicaid and other health programs is projected to fall $521 million short of needs in Maryland by next year.
Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, expected to be the Democratic nominee for governor in 2002, and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Allegany County Democrat, have supported expanding state-subsidized health care coverage. Neither returned a call on the issue yesterday.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Southern Maryland Democrat whose district has included many tobacco growers, said as recently as September that the General Assembly would not back another tobacco-tax increase.
But the state's fiscal picture has changed considerably since then, and Mr. Miller warned earlier that legislators would look to "sin taxes" first for revenue if the state hit an economic downturn.
Although there's evidence that tobacco use among youth has declined in Maryland since the tobacco-tax increase, additional increases will face some stiff resistance particularly from legislators like House Majority Whip George W. Owings III, who accuse the state of hypocrisy for not spending more to help smokers kick their habit.
"They are asking [smokers] they blame for [the state's health care burden] to solve the problem by paying higher taxes while they smoke," said Mr. Owings, also a Southern Maryland Democrat. "How far can you beat smokers? I don't think you see an increase backed."
And Mr. Owings said he believes smokers in Washington state soon will do what he and lots of Marylanders do buy their cigarettes in neighboring states.
Most of the state's 800 tobacco growers have applied for a buyout, funded by Maryland's share of the national tobacco settlement.


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