State tobacco tax hike draws debate

CHARLESTON — Health advocates and industry leaders lined up Wednesday to both praise and denounce an attempt to impose huge taxes on cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.

A packed House chamber lent itself to a hearing on HB2973, which would elevate the tax on cigarettes from 55 cents to $1.55 per pack.

Spit tobacco would jump from 7 percent of the wholesale price to 50 percent.

One in four West Virginians lights up regularly, and 22 percent of high schoolers smoke, Chuck Hamsher, government relations director for the American Heart Association, testified at the hearing.

Hamsher said 24.8 percent of young males use smokeless tobacco and suggested it is no less harmful.

“It moves the cancer from the chest level to the mouth and throat level,” he said.

“That’s all it does.”

Each year, some 3,200 residents die of tobacco-related issues.

“More shocking is the fact that 46,000 kids alive today will die prematurely from tobacco use if we do nothing to stop it,” Hamsher said.

Industry leaders warned of the economic fallout if the tax hikes on cigarettes — about 200 percent — and on smokeless tobacco — more than 600 percent — are approved in this session.

Jan Vineyard, president of the West Virginia Oil Marketers and Grocers Association (OMEGA), said her members account for more than 10 percent of the state’s revenues.

“We do have to compete on those borders,” he said.

If higher taxes are imposed, the entire state will become a concern, she said.

If the tax per carton climbs to $15.50 in West Virginia, while Virginia is at $3 and Kentucky’s is $6, “people from the middle of the state will drive to those other states to get their products.”

Vineyard said OMEGA has donated more than $1 million to scholarships the past six years and put up $202,000 to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“We aren’t the bad guys that you try to make us out to be,” she said.

Others spoke emotionally about the use of tobacco, such as Russ Taylor, who tried his first cigarette at age 8.

“It’s one of the gateway drugs,” he said, telling lawmakers his father smoked and abused alcohol and that he followed in his footsteps.

“My father cured his alcohol addiction by taking a 20-gauge shotgun and killing himself in our living room, drunk on Black Label beer,” he said.

Taylor and others pitched the tax increase bill, since some $60 million would be dedicated to substance abuse treatment programs — a pet project the past few years of House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne.

Another industry leader, Regan Bartley, part owner and marketing director for West Virginia-based Smoker Friendly, said she is trying to save between 100 and 120 jobs.

Bartley said her business pays its share of taxes and called HB2973 “unfair,” warning that increased taxes led to store closings in other states.

“Seventeen of our 39 stores are in border counties,” she said.

“It would have a direct, negative affect on them and the people that work there. Customers will go elsewhere for better deals, and that means the border states. Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, will get those customers, and eventually revenue will be lost. Customers go out of their way to buy cheaper goods.”

Others warned of the devastating impact on pregnant women and the birth defects that often afflict their children.

For 34 years, another speaker, Dr. Harry Tweel, a health officer in Cabell County, worked in pulmonary and critical care.

“I saw those with their oxygen tanks,” he told the committee.

“I saw the human costs of those with lung cancer, those with heart attacks and early deaths. I saw the devastation to young families losing the breadwinner because of this addiction.”

Perdue has estimated the higher taxes would yield between $125 million and $140 million in new revenue.

Of that, some $27 million would be set aside for prevention and cessation programs, and the balance would be spent on drug treatment efforts.


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