ANNAPOLIS- Southern Maryland lawmakers outlined their fight against a proposed tobacco tax Friday, promising letter-writing campaigns and testimony from tobacco farmers and vowing to bring busloads of opponents to the State House.
Opponents say the $1-a-pack tax increase proposed by Gov. Parris Glendening will hurt the state’s 1,200 tobacco farmers and could lead to a black market in cigarettes.
“Farmers and other people are going off like popcorn about this issue,” said Delegate Thomas E. Hutchins, R-Charles County.
Supporters of the tax increase, meanwhile, are making their own plans.
Smoke Free Maryland, which claims to represent scores of health and business groups, said it hopes to draw thousands of tax supporters to a Feb. 15 State House rally, including people who have lost loved ones as a result of cigarette use.
And supporters of the tax say Maryland tobacco farmers have little to fear since most of the state’s crop is sold overseas, where higher taxes will not reach.
“Because of the amount of tobacco sold overseas versus the amount sold in Maryland, we do not believe Maryland farmers will be specifically targeted or affected by the increases,” said Cassandra Yutzy, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association of Maryland. “Consumption overseas will not be affected.”
Glendening, who has included revenues from the tax in his fiscal 2000 budget, has said the tax increase is aimed at reducing smoking, particularly among teens.
“A tax increase decreases the amount of people smoking, especially young people,” Yutzy said. “That’s what our goal is and that’s why we will be fighting for it.”
But Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles County, said he does not think the public sees the need for more cigarette taxes at a time when the state is expected to have a surplus.
And merchants said they fear that raising the cost of cigarettes in Maryland will not stop people here from smoking, it will just drive them to take their business elsewhere.
“You can save just about $5 a carton just by paying 50 cents to go across the (Harry W. Nice Memorial) bridge,” into Virginia, said Harry Murphy, director of technical services for the Service Station Association.
Murphy said service station owners plan their own lobbying against the tobacco tax increase. He said they fear that the loss of too much business because of an “out of whack” tax increase could drive some of them out of business.
“All we’re concerned about here is being able to sell cigarette products at a competitive price,” Murphy said.
The service stations will be backed by the Maryland Retailers Association in the fight against a higher tobacco tax.
“It (a tax increase) certainly would adversely affect the convenience stores … not only in cigarette sales, but for those stores where people stop to buy a carton of milk or bread, along with their cigarettes,” said Tom Saquella, president of the retailers association. “People just won’t go there anymore.”
The proposed tax increase comes on the heels of a settlement between the tobacco companies and the states for costs the states incurred from tobacco-related illnesses over the years. Maryland stands to win about $4 billion from that settlement, which has already forced cigarette makers to raise the price of a pack by 50 cents.
Glendening has said he would like to use some of the settlement money for anti-smoking education and to develop alternative crops for tobacco farmers. That suggestion has been welcomed by Southern Maryland lawmakers.
“Education and public safety are sacred, like motherhood and apple pie,” said Middleton.
The Southern Maryland delegation, meanwhile, voted Friday to make the Tri-County Council the region’s lead agency in any deliberations over allocation of the settlement.
“We’ve done a lot of homework on this strategic plan to bring all interested parties into one fold to put together a plan of action for all farmers,” Hutchins said. “We need to help all of the farmers — that’s the purpose. The Tri-County Council is in the best position to facilitate that effort.”