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Health care advocates are making a $1 tax increase on cigarette sales their top priority for the 2013 General Assembly session.

Health Care for All Coalition President Vincent DeMarco said at a news conference Nov. 14 that a new tax hike would build on the success of a 2007 tax increase and this year’s increase on smokeless tobacco and little cigars. Proponents say a decrease in tobacco use in Maryland can be attributed to past tax increases.

“Over the past decade, three cigarette tax increases have reduced smoking by 32 percent,” DeMarco said.

DeMarco and other cigarette tax advocates said that tax hikes are effective in preventing young people from purchasing cigarettes.

Since 1999, the state has increased taxes on cigarettes by $1.64.

The $1 increase in 2007 has generated about $100 million in revenue, DeMarco said.

The money went to the general fund and aided in the expansion of Medicaid in 2008, said Matthew Celentano, deputy director of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative.

The coalition released a list of more than 500 groups that have endorsed the tax hike, including faith communities, unions and health advocates.

“This is a public health revenue measure,” DeMarco said. “These are different than other taxes, and they have strong public support.”

A 2011 survey conducted by Annapolis-based research firm Opinion Works and funded by the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative showed that 65 percent of voters favor raising the tobacco tax.

“Some lawmakers say that this is a regressive tax, that it affects lower-income people more, but so do health care issues,” said the Rev. Fred Weimert, chairman of the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council. “This is a community that needs health care.”

Del. Michael D. Smigiel (R-Upper Shore) has been a vocal critic of tobacco tax increases because, he said, the taxes are simply a way for the state to get more revenue from people who are addicted to tobacco products.

“There's an addiction here, and it has nothing to do with tobacco,” Smigiel said. “We're addicted to the money. If this is really about health, let’s be the first state in the nation to ban all tobacco.”

Another problem, Smigiel said, is that Marylanders will drive over the border into states with lower tobacco taxes, like Virginia, to purchase tobacco products.

“And while they’re there, they’ll buy eggs and milk and bread and lottery tickets and alcohol, and we’ll lose all that revenue,” Smigiel said.

Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) has not endorsed the tax increase: He is more focused on getting legislation passed to tighten penalties for smuggling tobacco products into or through Maryland from states with lower tax rates on those products.

“These two issues [the tax increase and tougher smuggling penalties] should be put together,” said Kim Frum, spokeswoman for Franchot’s office. “Raising the taxes on cigarettes without tightening the enforcement on smuggling is going to lead to more problems. These are very lucrative smuggling operations.”

hnunn@gazette.net