Del. Darryl Barnes: Override Hogan’s Tobacco Tax Veto to Save Lives in Maryland

Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George's). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

With Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday just in the rearview mirror and most of the 2021 Maryland General Assembly Legislative Session ahead, I cannot help but reflect on Dr. King’s legacyspecifically, how relevant his teachings are at this moment, to health and social justice in the Black community.

It is no secret that, COVID-19 has taken a far heavier toll on communities of color, specifically the Black community, both here in Maryland and throughout the country. The virus highlighted ongoing health inequities, including poorer health outcomes, as we saw those with preexisting conditions contract the virus at substantially higher rates.

We must eliminate these health inequities. Too often, powerful forces such as Big Tobacco — which historically has targeted the Black community to lure us into a lifelong addiction — stand in the way.

We must continue to fight the tobacco industry from killing our Black bodies. It is a matter of social justice.

As Dr. King stated in his 1963 speech at Western Michigan University, “while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated.”

Simply put, while we cannot legislate the morality of the tobacco industry, we can regulate that industry’s  behavior with legislation that we know will hurt the pockets of an industry that spends $126.2 million annually on marketing in Maryland. By doing so, we can save Marylanders from diseases such as cancer, cited by the American Cancer Society as the cause in 27.3% of all deaths yearly in Maryland.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has named smoking a risk factor for developing severe illness from COVID-19 and we cannot ignore the deadly results of the tobacco industry’s targeting of marginalized communities.

This is why I have joined public health advocates, including the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), in voicing deep disappointment over Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s decision to veto legislation which would raise Maryland’s cigarette tax by $1.75 per pack, a measure which the legislature passed in March.

This bill – which also would have increased the tax on some other tobacco products and would have taxed e-cigarettes for the first time – would have improved the health of Marylanders. We know that because significant, regular increases on the price of tobacco have been shown to be an effective part of a comprehensive approach to reducing tobacco use and saving lives. It also would have had a positive impact on the state’s economy by increasing tax revenue and would help pay for necessary costs to the state associated with COVID-19.

According to a coalition of leading public health groups including ACS CAN, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and Tobacconomics, increasing the cigarette tax by $1.75-per-pack would increase annual state revenue by over $95 million. And it would decrease long-term health care costs from adult and youth smoking that cost Maryland taxpayers more than $973 million annually.

A tax increase is also estimated to decrease smoking among youth (under age 18) by 18.2%, prevent 15,300 more from becoming adult smokers, and help 32,600 adults quit smoking, according to the coalition.

During this legislative session, my colleagues and I will have the opportunity to help negate the impact of Big Tobacco in our communities, improve overall health, and reduce the likelihood of worsened COVID-19 outcomes associated with tobacco use.

We need to act now. As our state battles this pandemic, I urge my colleagues to join me in prioritizing the health of Marylanders over the profits of the tobacco industry, to help fix health inequities, and resolve to override Gov. Hogan’s tobacco tax veto.

— DARRYL BARNES

The writer, a Democrat, serves as chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland and represents Prince George’s County’s District 25 in the Maryland House of Delegates.