Maryland group pushing to add $1 per pack

Cumberland Times-News
Sat Oct 08, 2011, 11:16 PM EDT
Matthew Bieniek

CUMBERLAND — The same organization which successfully pushed for a 50 percent hike in the state’s sales tax on alcohol earlier this year now plans a push to raise the tobacco tax.

Saving lives and saving the state money, as well as needed funding for health care, are the palpable results of raising taxes on smokes, said Vincent DeMarco, the president of Maryland Citizen’s Health Initiative.

“What we are doing here is building on past successess … Maryland smoking rates declined 32 percent, double the national average,” DeMarco said. DeMarco attributed that drop to tobacco tax increases put into place since 1999. The decline he cited occurred between 1998 and 2009. A 30-cent tax increase per pack took place in 1999, with increases of 34 cents in 2002 and $1 in 2008.

The campaign will launch Tuesday with more than 100 endorsing organizations and businesses already in the fold, but only one in Western Maryland. Endorsing organizations include AARP Maryland, the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and a host of other organizations.

“Right now we’re focusing on reaching people,” DeMarco said. When asked whether higher taxes might force so many smokers to quit that the policy might reach a point of diminishing returns, DeMarco said that isn’t likely.

“I don’t think we’re anywhere near reaching that point. The less people smoke the less the cost to the state. It’s a great way for the state to save money and have additional funds for health care,” he said. DeMarco said that by getting Marylanders to quit smoking over the past decade, 70,000 lives were saved.

Local merchants, especially those owning convenience and liquor stores have predicted the added sin taxes would hurt their business and said that the last cigarette tax increase a few years ago killed off a segment of their customer base.

Maryland Citizen’s Health Initiative says the alcohol tax increase, passed in this year’s General Assembly session, has already brought significant money into state coffers. The campaign to raise the tax will begin next week although no details have been announced.

The state made about $6 million in July from the 50 percent increase in the state’s sales tax on alcohol, the Associated Press reported. If that turns out to be the monthly average, it would add up to about $72 million in extra state revenue a year.

Local representatives have expressed unyielding opposition to alcohol and liquor tax increases.

“Any increase in taxes is unacceptable. The citizens of Allegany County cannot afford any more taxes, in any form or amount. Further, it will drive customers of Maryland businesses over the state line,” Delegate Kevin Kelly said.

In a previous Times-News interview, Billy Powell, the owner of Powell’s Grocery, a convenience store in Lonaconing, said tax increases hurt his business.

“Being a convenience store, if they don’t stop for beer and cigarettes, they don’t stop,” he said. Powell said the last tax hike a few years ago adversely impacted the store’s business.

Last modified: January 11, 2012