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Despite public support, lawmakers not likely to pass cigarette tax hike

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Although a poll released Tuesday says a majority of West Virginians support raising the state's cigarette tax, even some of the lawmakers who support such a measure say it's unlikely to pass this legislative session.

"The prevailing feeling at the Capitol is that there will be no tax increases," said Delegate Danny Wells, D-Kanawha. "That's not always a good thing, especially when the health of the people is involved.

"I think we by all means should increase that tax," Wells said. "It's the healthy thing to do. I see this as a splendid opportunity for smokers to contribute to the economic vibrancy of the state."

The new poll, from the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free West Virginia, indicates that 67 percent of West Virginia voters favor a $1 per pack increase on the state's cigarette tax. Voters favor a cigarette tax hike to address budget shortfalls instead of other options like increasing sales, income, beverage and business taxes or reducing funding to health care, higher education, primary care clinics or child protection programs, according to the poll, the results of which were released Tuesday.

The coalition surveyed 500 registered West Virginia voters using live interviews Feb. 19-21. The coalition and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the poll.

Tobacco-related illnesses claim the life of around 3800 West Virginians each year, former state senator Dr. Dan Foster said at a press conference about the survey Tuesday afternoon.

Smoking costs the state more than $690 million in health care costs each year, Foster said.

"This horrible toll will only continue if we don't act," Foster said. More than 9,800 West Virginia kids try cigarettes for the first time each year and 2,600 of them become regular smokers, he said.

"If the current trend continues, 4,600 of these West Virginia kids alive today will die of premature death from tobacco use," Foster said.

Advocates say increasing the price of cigarettes will lower usage, especially among young people.

"The science could not be more clear," Foster said. "Virtually every expert in this country and elsewhere has concluded that raising tobacco tax is one of the most effective measures we can take to reduce smoking."

At 55 cents per pack, West Virginia's cigarette tax is the 44th lowest in the nation. The national average for tobacco taxes is $1.48 per pack. Advocates say increasing the tobacco tax by $1 per pack would raise more than $140 million in new annual revenue for the state, even though raising the tax is likely to reduce tobacco usage.

Proponents say raising the tax would prevent 21,100 West Virginia children from smoking, save 11,800 state residents from premature smoking related deaths and save more than $760 million in long-term tobacco-related health care costs, according to a statement from the coalition.

Sen. Chris Walters, R-Putnam, said he's waiting to see the legislation before he forms an opinion about it. Walters wants to know where the funding would go, he said. But the lawmaker said he's has gotten messages from constituents who would support the tax increase, he said.

Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said he is in favor of raising the tax but the odds are not in its favor. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has made clear that he doesn't support increasing taxes, Palumbo said.

Delegate Nancy Peoples Guthrie, D-Kanawha, said she has supported raising the tax in the past and would do so this year again. But the legislature is focused on other things this year, she said.

"I don't think it's on anyone's radar screen this year," Guthrie said. "It seems to me we have been focused on education and jobs and prison overcrowding but haven't focused attention on raising the tobacco tax. It's kind of an unknown. I don't know anyone who's really championing that issue."

House Health and Human Resources Committee Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, who has proposed legislation that would increase the tax on cigarette, called the survey remarkable. It shows that West Virginians are inclined to do what's right and what seems to be appropriate despite the national feeling of opposition to raising taxes, he said.

The question is whether lawmakers can overcome the fear of raising taxes to do the right thing, Perdue said.

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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