The Price of Smoking

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

THAT SMOKING is a major cause of lung cancer, heart disease, asthma and a host of other health problems is undisputed, yet too many states tax cigarette sales too little to dissuade smokers. Simultaneously, those states complain bitterly that their health care spending has spiked, devouring an ever-expanding share of their budgets. Put Maryland in that category. Its $1 levy on a pack of cigarettes is barely above the national average (92 cents), but the state's power brokers recoil in horror at the idea of raising it.

The odds therefore are somewhat against legislation in Maryland's House of Delegates that would double the state's cigarette tax to $2 a pack. That would place it in a tie with two other states as the nation's fourth-highest tobacco tax, which has the bill's critics in a snit. What matters is that it also would prompt thousands of young Marylanders to quit smoking, and keep thousands more from acquiring the habit. That has been the clear experience when states have raised cigarette taxes in the past. When Maryland raised its tax in 1999 -- to 66 cents a pack from 36 cents -- an estimated 20,000 youngsters either quit smoking or never started; presumably, more followed suit when the rate went to $1 a pack in 2002. That translates into a huge public health savings for the state over time.

A side benefit of the Maryland bill is that it would yield about $155 million annually to expand the state's paltry Medicaid coverage for low-income adults; beef up anti-smoking programs that have been whittled away by budget cuts; help small businesses band together to reduce the cost of providing health insurance for their employees; and restore health coverage for immigrant children, which was slashed by the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Polling indicates that sizable majorities of Marylanders support the increase.

Mr. Ehrlich and the leaders of both houses of Maryland's legislature dislike raising the tobacco tax, but the bill is not quite stillborn. It has more than 30 co-patrons in the House of Delegates in addition to its chief sponsor, Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. There may be a risk of raising the tobacco tax so high that the state becomes hooked on the revenue it produces; if this bill passes it would raise the state's total tax take from tobacco above $400 million a year. But smoking itself is the more insidious addiction. Maryland's leaders should not shrink from a frontal assault on it.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company