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Health coalition lobbies for Md. tobacco tax hike

October 14, 2011|By JESSICA TALSON/Capital News Service

BALTIMORE, Md. — The Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative has launched a campaign to raise taxes on all tobacco products in Maryland.

Cigarette prices would increase by $1 per pack, and other tobacco taxes would increase at a corresponding rate, under the proposal.

More than 150 faith, community and health organizations have already endorsed the proposed tax, including the AARP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People of Maryland and the American Cancer Society.

The tobacco tax revenue would fund various state health-related programs, including tobacco control programs and improved healthcare access for Maryland families.

"Not only is this good policy, it's good politics," said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative. "We all will benefit."

But tobacco lobbyist Bruce Bereano disagreed, saying the tax hike on tobacco is discriminatory and unwarranted.

"Smoking is legal and lawful among adults in Maryland. If that's going to continue and be left as a personal decision among adults, then let's stop hassling and intimidating and jerking around adult smokers," Bereano said. "Enough is enough."

Maryland last raised taxes on non-cigarette tobacco in 1999. Cigarette taxes have been raised several times since then, most recently by $1 in January 2008.

The tobacco tax campaign comes only a few months after the health initiative group successfully lobbied to raise the tax on alcohol in April.

DeMarco said that raising the cost of tobacco saves both lives and money. Smoking rates in Maryland declined by 32.6 percent between 1998 and 2009, which was double the national average. He said the decrease in smoking saved more than 70,000 lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in health care costs.

The current tax increase would not be the end of the campaign. Tobacco tax advocates would like Maryland to become a smoke-free state.

Bereano contends that raising the tobacco tax actually costs the state money because smokers leave the state to buy tobacco.

"It's not going to stop smoking in Maryland ... [The smokers] are just going to be driven further from the state of Maryland to buy their smokes, and they'll buy their bread and butter and other things there. Maryland will lose revenue, it makes no sense fiscally," Bereano said.

Bereano said the people who may get hit hardest by the tax are people in cities who don't have personal transportation and cannot go elsewhere to buy tobacco.

DeMarco said the health initiative will continue to advocate for the tobacco tax if the legislature does not pass the increase in next year's session.

"If the legislature doesn't pass it, we are ready to make this a top issue in the 2014 election," DeMarco said.

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