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Advocacy group says more than 200 Maryland legislative candidates back tobacco tax hike

A health-care advoacy group in Maryland ispushing to raise the tobacco tax from $2 to $3 a pack. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File)

A health-care advocacy group says it will release the names next week of more than 200 Maryland legislative candidates who support a proposal to raise the tax on a pack of cigarettes to $3, which would be among the highest rates in the nation.

The move by the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative all but ensures a robust debate next year when the new legislature convenes over whether to increase the state’s tobacco tax, which lawmakers doubled to $2 a pack in 2007.

Because of the advocacy group’s efforts, Vincent DeMarco, its president, said he is convinced there will be a majority of members elected in both the House and Senate this year who support the plan. The higher tax is intended both to reduce smoking, particularly among youths, and to generate additional revenue to fund public health programs.

Legislative analysts projected a similar bill introduced this year would have yielded more than $100 million annually, even with a drop-off in smoking because of the higher tax.

Opponents of raising the tax have argued that it hurts working-class families that are already struggling to make ends meet.

DeMarco said the group’s list includes lawmakers from both parties, though most are Democrats, who dominate both chambers of the legislature And it includes both challengers and incumbents, including several current committee chairmen in the General Assembly, he said.

DeMarco said his group has not yet sought support for the tax increase from the gubernatorial candidates seeking to succeed Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) this year.

“We think that if we can show them we have a legislative majority, whoever becomes governor will support it,” DeMarco said, noting that all three major Democrats in the race have supported tobacco tax increases in the past. The four Republicans have not.

The gubernatorial campaign of Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Katie Hill, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D), declined to say whether Gansler would back a $1 increase in the tobacco tax as governor but noted that he “has supported taxing the use of tobacco products and re-investing those funds into public health measures and campaigns that effectively reduce youth smoking.”

As attorney general, Hill said, Gansler has pursued other strategies as well to reduce smoking.

Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), a third Democratic candidate for governor, meanwhile, called higher taxes on tobacco products “smart policy.”

“It has already saved 70,000 lives in Maryland, and it helps fund important initiatives,” Mizeur said. “I’ve stood with this cause for the last eight years as a legislator, and I will continue to do so as governor.”

The Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative has scheduled a pair of press conferences Wednesday to unveil its list of supportive lawmakers.

John Wagner is a political reporter covering the race for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.



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