Committee snuffs out tobacco tax hike

CHARLESTON — Smokers can relax and light up without fear of digging into their wallets to cough up an extra $1 per pack of cigarettes.

An lack of interest from the House Finance Committee led to the demise of a proposed hike in the tobacco tax, leaving in the lurch an anticipated $60 million for cessation programs and money to treat addicts.

A disappointed House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, lamented the demise of the bill and spoke of a “silent epidemic” that is being virtually ignored.

The failure of the tobacco tax, however, didn’t prevent the resurrection in the Senate of a bill aimed at resolving the staggering debt in the other post-employment benefits, or OPEB.

Rather than specify a funding stream, Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, said lawmakers would need to search for one in a year-long study on coping with the $8 billion liability.

McCabe had wanted to link the OPEB resolution with the $1 per pack hike in cigarettes, along with the proposed tax increase in spit tobacco from 7 percent of the wholesale price to 50 percent.

The idea was to take $50 million annually from that increased revenue and apply it to the red ink in OPEB.

When that fell through, McCabe suggested Plan B, which called for a 45-cent per pack increase on cigarettes, but that, likewise, drew the cold shoulder of the finance panel.

His revised bill also means the state will absorb the liability for school boards whose employees fall within the school aid formula.

“Any time you raise the issue of a tax, it creates a kind of negative atmosphere when you’re having an election,” Perdue said.

“It’s very difficult to cut through that.”

Perdue said lawmakers cannot stop the search for money to finance drug addiction treatment.

“If we continue to do nothing, something bad is going to happen,” he said.

“We’ve got to recognize how serious the problem is. We don’t see things that are going on around us, and we’re not responding in a timely way.”

Almost every day, he said, at least one resident gets hooked on some type of narcotic.

“Children are becoming fatherless and motherless,” he said.

“People are overdosing and dying. Daughters are becoming prostitutes. Men are becoming thieves and robbers. Those things happen every day. It’s a vicious cycle that’s moving faster and faster.”

Perdue views the drug problem as an epidemic.

“We refuse to see it as an epidemic that can be silent. It’s far more deadly than the ones we choose to recognize.”


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