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Health advocates celebrate higher tobacco prices

Say it has deterred young people, will generate $5 million a year

The Gazette
Friday October 26, 2012
By Holly Nunn Staff Writer

Public health activists and officials say the higher cost of tobacco products as a result of the latest state tax increases is creating an effective deterrent for youth.

“That’s going to result in one-third fewer youths using these deadly products,” Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizen’s Health Initiative and a lead lobbyist for the tax hike, said of the cost of the tobacco products. He spoke at a news conference Wednesday at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School in Baltimore.

After lobbying from the coalition, the General Assembly raised the tax on small cigars from 15 percent to 70 percent and on smokeless tobacco from 15 percent to 30 percent, far exceeding what neighboring states charge.

The tax hike was intended to target the small, often sweet-flavored and brightly packaged cigars widely available in gas stations and convenience stores.

Prior to the tax increase, a package of five small cigars in Baltimore cost about $5.50, according to a study by the Legal Resource Center at the University of Maryland law school. Now, the same pack costs about $8, according to the coalition. Increases in the cost of chewing tobacco averaged 30 cents.

Teenagers are especially responsive to changes in pricing, said Matthew Celentano, deputy director of Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative.

“Tobacco taxes produce really predictable results, especially among kids,” Celentano said. “Kids just get priced out of the market.”

According to the 2010 Maryland Youth Tobacco Survey, cigarette use among high school-age youths dropped from 23 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2010, due in part, Celentano said, to past cigarette tax increases. At the same time, cigar use among the same group increased 11.2 percent.

“The higher the perceived difficulty in getting the products, the less likely you will be to use the products,” said Donald Shell, director of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control.

The tobacco tax — passed as part of a larger tax bill during a special session of the legislature in May — is expected to generate about $5 million in revenue for the state, beginning in fiscal 2013. DeMarco and Celentano said those revenues should be devoted to health care initiatives.

The last tobacco tax increase — $1 per pack fee on cigarettes — took effect in 2008.

Del. Michael Smigiel (R-Dist. 36) of Elkton, an outspoken critic of the tax increase, said he is skeptical that any of the money will end up in health initiatives.

“We’re addicted to the money more than we’re concerned with getting kids to stop using tobacco,” Smigiel said. “Taxing it is not the answer; education is the answer. If this is really about keeping kids from smoking, raise the age limit and educate them.”

Celentano said the revenue isn’t directed at a particular program but that the organization would work with Gov. Martin O’Malley’s office during the budget process, as it did after the last tobacco tax increase.

“The revenue is important, sure, but [the tax hike] is still going to prevent tons and tons of kids from using these products. That’s the more important thing,” he said.

 

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