House OKs changes to smokeless tobacco tax

smokelessAUSTIN, Texas (AP) – The Texas House tentatively approved a measure Tuesday aimed at drawing more doctors to underserved areas that relies on a much-debated change to the smokeless tobacco tax.

The bill would take any additional revenue gained from the tax change and apply it to a state medical school loan repayment program that doctors could apply for after working in an underserved area for at least a year.

“(The cost of medical school) keeps them from going to be a general practitioner, therefore we’re short of doctors in rural and urban areas,” said Rep. Al Edwards, D-Houston.

Edwards originally sought to fund the program through increased fees doctors pay, but efforts by Pampa Republican Rep. Warren Chisum and Houston Democratic Rep. Sylvester Turner won out to draw funds from the modified tax.

Chewing tobacco is currently taxed as a percent of the list price of each can. The bill initially approved on Tuesday would instead tax products according to weight at $1.22 per ounce.

The change drew fire from some lawmakers over several days of debate.

Several representatives argued that smaller tobacco companies that create cheaper, generic brands would be hurt by the increased prices.

“In a weight based program, you’re hurting small timers,” said Rep. Mark Homer, D-Paris.

Homer said the House should not be getting into an industry fight between big tobacco and little tobacco.

Other opponents argued that the change would amount to a tax increase for Texans who buy cheaper brands of smokeless tobacco.

Federal guidelines call for one doctor per 3,500 people, a standard 114 of Texas’ 254 counties do not meet.

Medical organizations say that the high cost of medical school drives many young doctors to seek higher paying specialties and jobs, leaving many areas – particularly border and rural areas – running short as doctors retire and populations grow.

Under the bill, a doctor could apply over four years of service in an underserved area, receiving a maximum of $25,000 the first year and up to $55,000 in the fourth year.

The measure faces a final vote in the House before it can head to the Senate.

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