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MedChi Tobacco Tax
In this May 2014 photo, Del. Shawn Tarrant (left) and Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Health Care for All Coalition, are seen at a MedChi press conference about a proposal to raise the tobacco tax. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Advocates claim support for hiking tobacco tax

Proposal would increase state levy from $2 to $3 a pack

A coalition of anti-smoking advocates say they believe they have the votes to increase the tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products.

The claim came as part of the release of a list of 216 names of supporters — candidates for the House of Delegates and Senate — provided by Maryland Citizens Health Initiative and other organizations.

“We believe this list is going to translate, in 2015, into the enactment of the Healthy Maryland Initiative legislation,” said Vincent DeMarco, president of Maryland Citizens Health Initiative.

But some retailers opposed to the measure say the increase will hurt businesses.

“It’s easy to be on the right side of that argument because it’s all about hurting big tobacco,” said Keith Madsen, who owns Hess stations in Towson and Elkridge. “But before it hurts big tobacco it hurts small business owners.”

Madsen, a non-smoker, said such an increase would increase smuggling of cigarettes from other states where tobacco taxes are as much as six times lower than in Maryland.

“I have no problem with increasing cigarette taxes as long as they are comparable to tax rates in other states,” Madsen said.

The list of supporters contains those who have either signed pledges or sent emails and letters supporting the plan or previously co-sponsored similar legislation. Of the names on the list, DeMarco said, his group believes 79 are running for the House and 27 are Senate candidates. It takes 71 and 24 votes in each respective chamber to pass a bill.

The bill favored by DeMarco and other anti-smoking activists calls for increasing the tax on cigarettes from $2 to $3 per pack and increasing the tax on other tobacco products from 30 percent of the wholesale price to 95 percent. The legislation also requires the governor to spend at least $21 million annually on prevention and cessation programs.

A similar bill was proposed earlier this year and was sponsored by 19 senators and 57 members of the House of Delegates.

Del. Shawn Z. Tarrant, D-Baltimore, said he supports the bill and favors the approach taken in states such as New York and New Jersey, where a $14 pack of cigarettes prices many teens out of the market.

“I would rather see a kid buying two $5 Subway subs,” Tarrant said.

Tarrant, who is also the chief majority whip in the House of Delegates, said the bill to increase the tax in Maryland is the type of legislation his party would work to pass. He predicted that a super-majority of 85 votes is not out of the question.

“This is an issue where we would whip the votes before it came out of committee to make sure that it passes,” Tarrant said.

Opponents have already started to line up against the proposal.

“Candidates work very hard for the privilege to come to Annapolis to legislate,” said Ellen Valentino, a lobbyist for the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Distributors Association. “The hearing process is the key to the passage of new laws and taxes. It is unfortunate that commitments have been made to impose a new tax without small businesses being given the opportunity to see a proposal and have their voices heard.”

Earlier this month, the organization Valentino represents sent letters to candidates warning them that they would “be inundated with questionnaires and pledge requests” and asked candidates “for a chance to read the proposed legislation, so everyone understands the possible ramifications before you pledge.”

Madsen, the gas station owner, said an increase would hurt business at stations such as his in central Maryland. Closer to the borders of Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, the decreases would be more severe.

“On the borders, it could be a 50 percent reduction,” Madsen said. “They’re bleeding gasoline and bleeding cigarettes.”