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Cigarette tax chokes sales

September 08, 2000

Cigarette tax chokes sales



By LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer


Cigarette sales in Maryland fell a record 16 percent after the tobacco tax was increased last year, prompting supporters of the tax to declare victory in curbing smoking.

But local lawmakers, most of whom opposed adding 30 cents to the cost of each pack of cigarettes, believe the tax has not had the same effect in Washington County, where smokers can easily cross state lines to save money.

Statewide cigarette sales have been steadily dropping for at least a decade, but they took a big nosedive in the year after the tax went into effect July 1, 1999.

About 304 million packs of cigarettes were sold in Maryland, compared to 363 million packs the year before. The numbers are based on sales of cigarette-tax stamps by the state comptroller's office.

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"Clearly there's no way to dispute the tobacco tax is saving lives ,and that makes it a good law," said Vincent DeMarco, who led the push to increase the tax.

Local lawmakers have no hard evidence to dispute that the higher cost of cigarettes caused some people to quit smoking.

But they point to anecdotal evidence that Washington County smokers are crossing state lines to save as much as $6.35 a carton in taxes alone.

John Owens, the owner of Stateline Exxon in Clearbrook, Va., said people drive from Maryland to stock up on cigarettes.

"It has increased my business quite a bit. They buy cigarettes and they gas up. What can I say?" he said.

There are three other stores within two miles of the state line that also cater to smokers seeking the haven of Virginia's 2.5 cent-per-pack tax.

The owner of Market Lot Liquors in Hagerstown said he knows people who bring back as many as 20 cartons at a time for their friends and family members.

"We're at a competitive disadvantage," said Ed Hood Sr.

Still, the tax increase hasn't hurt his business as much as Hood anticipated.

"It's not catastrophic by any means," he said.

Smokers have chosen other alternatives to saving money, as well, such as buying generic cigarettes or rolling their own, other business owners said.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said more than 25 people have told him they are buying their cigarettes out of state.

"It has hurt our area economy. It has done very little to discourage smoking," Munson said.

Munson and other opponents of the tax increase said there are more effective ways of encouraging people to quit smoking than raising taxes.

A tax increase only penalizes older smokers, some of whom took up the habit after being given free cigarettes as soldiers, said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

Meanwhile, McKee said he sees middle school and high school students smoking at the bus stop in front of his house in Halfway every day.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, said personal responsibility is the only thing that will make people quit.

"It's a shame the state of Maryland is going to fuel their moral agenda. That's not the role of the government - to use tax policies to further their left-wing agenda," Mooney said.

But Del. Sue Hecht, the only member of the Washington County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly who voted to increase the tax, said government needs to play a role in discouraging smoking.

"This is a really dangerous habit. It we're getting more people to stop, more power to us," said Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington.

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