The smoking divide

Sunday, October 10, 2010

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, adult cigarette smokers made up a little over a fifth of the population of both Maryland and Virginia. Since then, adult smoking rates and cigarette sales have plummeted in Maryland, as a direct result of laws adopted in Annapolis. In Virginia, where the tobacco lobby retains more sway, the declines have been much more modest.

Let's be blunt: Maryland lawmakers opted for policies that preserved health and lives. Virginia lawmakers chose lethal ones that enabled smokers to keep on killing themselves.

Maryland's pro-life, anti-smoking stance consists of a trifecta of policy choices. First, starting in 1999 the state enacted steep and successive tobacco tax increases that raised the price of a pack of cigarettes to among the highest in the nation. Second, using funds from the national tobacco settlement, Maryland spent heavily on smoking prevention programs. Third, state lawmakers passed a tough, comprehensive smoke-free law, which took effect in early 2008.

With each of those measures, particularly the tax increases, cigarette sales in the state declined. And no, that doesn't mean smokers just crossed state lines to sustain their habit. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of Marylanders who smoke fell by 33 percent from 1998to 2009. That's about twice as fast as the smoking rate dropped in Virginia, or nationally.

By contrast, Virginia's anti-smoking moves have been sluggish. Although the state raised its almost nonexistent cigarette tax in 2004, to 30 cents a pack, it remains lower than that of any state except Missouri. It was only a year ago that the Old Dominion finally got around to requiring that restaurants and bars be smoke-free. And Virginia's spending on anti-smoking campaigns has also lagged behind Maryland's.

In the name of protecting a historic industry and appeasing a still-powerful lobby, Virginia's General Assembly -- particularly the Republican-controlled House of Delegates, which has fought for the tobacco industry at every turn -- has done terrible damage to public health. In so doing, it has imposed an incalculable price in disease and suffering and cost the state tens of millions of dollars in health care, lost wages and taxes.

To its credit, Maryland acted decisively on tobacco. But lawmakers in Annapolis, who have coddled the alcohol lobby for years, have maintained an Eisenhower-era tax rate on hard liquor that is among the nation's lowest. A major study by scholars at Johns Hopkins University last year showed that by imposing a liquor tax that was simply near the nation's average, the Maryland General Assembly would cut the number of alcohol-related injuries and fatalities on the state's roads.

With legislators having shown they are able to protect the public on tobacco, isn't it time for them to do the same with spirits?

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