Correction: An earlier version of this editorial reported incorrectly that Virginia has the lowest cigarette tax rate in the nation, at 30 cents a pack. Missouri’s rate, at 17 cents a pack, is lower, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The following version has been updated.
MARYLAND HAS one of the highest state-imposed cigarette tax rates in the nation ($2 per pack) and, unsurprisingly, one of the lowest smoking rates. Virginia has one of the lowest cigarette tax rates in the nation (30 cents per pack); its smoking rate is almost 20 percent higher than Maryland’s.
America is well past the debate about the health effects of smoking, but tobacco taxes in many states remain low, thanks largely to the influence of tobacco companies. Yet it is clear that higher cigarette taxes have a direct effect on smoking rates, and they are particularly effective in dissuading young people from taking up the habit.
In Maryland, where the tax on a pack of cigarettes was raised in 1999 (to 36 cents), 2002 (to $1) and 2008 (to the current rate of $2), smoking rates have fallen by about a third, much faster than the national average. At the time of the last increase, Maryland’s tobacco tax was 6th-highest in the nation; since then it has slipped to 12th as other states have leapfrogged each other in an effort to further discourage smoking — and raise revenue in the process.
In Annapolis, public health advocates and other groups are now pushing for another $1 increase, which would bump the state tax in Maryland to $3 per pack. Depending on how much of the increase tobacco companies decide to absorb, that could raise the average retail price of cigarettes above $7; it’s currently around $6.40.
The projected benefits of a $1 increase in Maryland make a persuasive case. They include $95 million in additional revenue (which health advocates would like to use to extend Medicaid health coverage to the poor); a 10 percent decrease in the rate of youth smoking; thousands of adults who would be persuaded to quit; and the prevention of thousands of premature deaths, which in turn would produce considerable economic benefits.
It’s true that raising the tax would cause more Marylanders to cross the border to buy cigarettes in Virginia or North Carolina. But cigarette sales fell much more dramatically in 2008 in Maryland, the District and Delaware, all of which raised their tobacco taxes that year, than they rose in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia, which did not. And while cigarette smuggling remains an unquantifiable challenge, declining smoking rates and the associated public health payoffs are real.
Legislation to raise the tax went nowhere in Annapolis this year, possibly because the state has raised so many other taxes in the last few years. Advocates are mounting a push to gather pledges of support from lawmakers to enact the increase next year.
Meanwhile, in Virginia, where the tobacco lobby remains virtually unchallenged, the average price of a pack of cigarettes, about $4.60, is among the lowest in the nation. If Virginia lawmakers want to encourage children to take up the habit, they’re doing a great job.