ANNAPOLIS Southern Maryland lawmakers are fuming at Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s backing of a large tobacco tax increase during the 194th session of the Maryland General Assembly that opened Wednesday.
Glendening is supporting a $1 per pack cigarette tax increase as part of a plan to curb teen-age smoking. That’s 50 cents less than his original proposal, which he revised after the state settled a lawsuit last year against tobacco companies for an estimated $4 billion.
As a result of that settlement, tobacco companies raised the price of a pack by 50 cents.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s County, said the tobacco tax is going to be a tough sell this session.
“I’m a firm believer that you don’t impose any type of tax without reason,” said Miller, a lifelong Southern Maryland resident. “Let’s see how the 50-cent tax decreases consumption before we talk about increasing the tax.”
Other Southern Maryland representatives said tobacco farmers will be hurt by a big tax increase. Alternative crops, they said, won’t provide the same income as tobacco for the estimated 1,200 tobacco farmers in their region.
“At the amount of money per acre tobacco farmers make now, nothing can match it,” said Delegate Thomas E. Hutchins, R-Charles County. “Tobacco is great to grow.”
Delegate Van T. Mitchell, D-Charles County and chairman of the Southern Maryland House delegation, said tobacco has potential medicinal value, and research is being done into that alternative crop use. He’d like to see funding for a variety of tobacco crop alternatives, he said.
“I’d love to see a program where if the farmer decided to grow something in place of tobacco, he would receive the same amount of money,” Mitchell said.
Don Vandrey, Glendening’s assistant press secretary, said the governor recognizes the importance of the tobacco industry in Southern Maryland. The money received from the tobacco settlement will be used to assist farmers with alternative crop development, he said.
Some of the Southern Maryland lawmakers say a tobacco tax hike could create a black market for cigarettes.
“You throw out another $1 (per pack) and add $10 or $12 to each carton, people will drive 10 or 20 miles to another state to buy a carton because they’ll save $20 to $40,” Mitchell said.
Hutchins agrees. The former Maryland State Police officer said the danger point will arrive, as it did in the 1970s, when police intercepted untaxed cigarettes going through Maryland from other states.
“My biggest fear is that Maryland will become the terminus for untaxed cigarettes,” he said. Hutchins said he’d like to see anti- tobacco education programs targeted at middle-schoolers.
“To simply increase the tax and say, `This is going to solve the problem,’ isn’t the answer,” he said.
Vandrey countered that only a small number of Marylanders are likely to cross state lines to buy cigarettes at a cheaper price.
“We haven’t really seen the 50-cent increase here for the inconvenience of traveling to another state as being a major factor,” he said.
Vandrey said Glendening wants to use state settlement money for stop-smoking programs and to cut class size for teen anti- smoking education programs.
Kari Appler, project coordinator for the Maryland State Medical Society and Smoke Free Maryland, said a June 1998 poll conducted across the state showed that 61 percent of all likely voters favored the original $1.50 per pack tax increase. Glendening cut this proposal by 50 cents last Thursday because the state tobacco settlement resulted in a 50-cent-a-pack price hike.
She disputed those who say a black market will spring up, saying studies have shown higher taxes bring about decreases in the numbers of teens who smoke.
“We know that for every 10 percent increase in the tax, there’s a 10 percent decrease in the number of teens smoking,” she said. “No other state that has raised the tax has had the experience of smuggling in cigarettes – it’s an argument the industry uses all the time. It’s not a reality, it’s a scare tactic.”