Lynn Byus started dipping snuff on a dare.
Byus, 39, now works for the West Virginia Chapter of the American
Cancer Society. She giggled a
little when she told about how she became
addicted to smokeless tobacco as a 12-year-old. Was
embarrassed about her tobacco habit?
"Now, yes, I'm embarrassed by it," she said, "but then, no. We didn't
know any better."
Byus wanted to play basketball with the boys, but they wouldn't let
her. During the county
fair, she was standing in line to go on the
Tilt-a-Whirl ride. She begged the boys again to let
her on the team.
All right, one boy told her, you can play, but only if you can take a
dip of snuff and not get
"It burnt really bad, but I wouldn't let anybody know," she
blamed getting sick on the
Peer pressure may have got her hooked, Byus said, but the cheapness of
back. She wants state lawmakers to
tax smokeless tobacco as a way to keep kids from starting
"If it costs more, more kids will quit," she
Most West Virginians agree with Byus that smokeless tobacco
done by the Coalition for a
Tobacco-Free West Virginia, showed 83 percent want to tax
chewing tobacco. West Virginia is one of only nine
Not some evil thing
Earlier this year, it looked like Byus and others like her would get
their way. A tax on
smokeless tobacco had the support of
Gov. Cecil Underwood; House Speaker Robert Kiss,
health groups; and a majority of delegates in the House.
But opposition from members of the Senate leadership kept the issue
from even coming up for a
vote. The bill died in the Senate Finance
Committee. Sen. Oshel Craigo, D-Putnam, is chairman
of the committee.
That committee had six of the top 10 recipients of tobacco
contributions in 1998, according to
a Sunday Gazette-Mail analysis of
the People's Election Reform Coalition (PERC) campaign
Three groups that publicly opposed the smokeless tobacco
tax - tobacco lobbyists, tobacco
committees, and the West Virginia Wholesalers Association - gave a total
$15,550 in 1998 to seven members of the Senate Finance Committee.
They gave $5,500 to Craigo's 1998 campaign, more than any other member
of the Legislature. In
addition, Craigo owns part interest in a service
He said neither
his personal or campaign finances affected his decision-making.
"It's not an issue with me. I'm in the retail business, and I
understand their concerns," he
Craigo said he opposed the tax on smokeless tobacco
because of two promises: one to tobacco
farmers in his district
any taxes. He also helped put an additional $800,000 into
"This is not some evil thing you guys would like to conjure up," Craigo
Somebody's got to look out for you
For whatever reason, Craigo and other members of the Senate leadership
are responsible for the
death of the tobacco tax, said
Sara Crickenberger, executive director of the American Lung
of West Virginia. All she wanted from them was one vote of the whole
"If we could get leadership to give us a floor vote, we knew we'd stand
a chance," she
For four years, she had tried to convince lawmakers that the
best way to get young people off
smokeless tobacco was to raise
its price. For three years, the bill went nowhere.
But in 2000, several things changed. A group of anti-tobacco
organizations combined their
resources and hired Tom Susman, a former
legislator and veteran lobbyist.
"Somebody's got to be looking out for you," Crickenberger
The national tobacco settlement also exposed a different side of
the tobacco industry. When
tobacco executives lined up in
front of a congressional committee and said that tobacco was
addictive, they lost all their credibility, she
Finally, the tax gained some powerful allies when Delegate Larry
Linch, D-Harrison, added an
amendment that would have used the
tax to fund nursing homes for veterans.
Even if the bill passed the House, Crickenberger knew it would probably
die later. Senate
President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, promised to kill
the bill once it landed on his side of
the Capitol. Opposition from the
Senate leadership is usually enough to stop any bill, no
Still, when the smokeless tobacco tax passed the House on
a 60 to 38 vote, Crickenberger
allowed herself to hope. The bill had
two hurdles to clear before it could make it to the floor
Senate: the Health and Human Resources Committee, and the Finance
Committee. It cleared
the first, but the second would trip it up.
On March 8, Crickenberger was hoping to catch senators before they
voted on whether the tax
could advance to the full Senate. The
committee meeting was late getting started.
Only one senator was in the committee room. Crickenberger stood next to
a side door that leads
into a receptionist's office, and then through
another door into committee chairman Craigo's
office. A member of the
Senate staff shooed her away, and closed the door. The senators came
a few minutes later through that door, one right after the other in
"When they sat down, it went very smoothly," she said, "and with very
First, Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, moved to withdraw funding for the
popular veteran's home
from the bill. The only discussion came from
Sen. Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha, asking where funding
for the veterans home
would come from. He was reassured the funding would come from
in the budget. Plymale's amendment passed on a voice vote.
The anti-tobacco activists wanted to know how each member of the
committee voted on the bill,
but committee votes are usually voice
votes. Since each senator's position is not recorded on a
Crickenberger and the other anti-tobacco people resorted to trying
to read the
senators' lips. They each took one senator; Crickenberger
was trying to watch the lips of Sen.
Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas.
Crickenberger had a personal reason to watch Helmick's vote on this
tax. Her father died of
cancer of the esophagus in 1994, and
Helmick was his senator. Crickenberger had told him the
story about how
her father became addicted to snuff.
"My parents stopped smoking when my mom found out she was pregnant,"
"At the time,
the tobacco companies called snuff the
Her father dipped Skoal for more than 30 years before he finally was
able to quit. But it was
too late; he had developed cancer. After nine
months of radiation and surgery, the doctors sent
him home to
Pocahontas County to die.
"Walt knew what Dad went through," she
"At the end, I thought
that might make a
Crickenberger tried to look Helmick in the eyes, but couldn't.
"They're sitting up above us, and the chairs lean way back," she said,
"so it's hard to even
see what they say."
Then, Sen. Billy Wayne Bailey, D-Wayne, moved to postpone the
tobacco tax bill indefinitely.
This parliamentary move is
attempted only a few times each session, and kills the bill for
rest of the session. After no discussion, the motion passed, and
the tobacco tax was dead.
"Our people started crying - not sobbing, but they had tears in their
"We felt like we lost our chance on the
floor, our day in court, so to speak."
Later, three senators registered their opposition to both of the killer
motions: Sen. Martha
Walker, D-Kanawha, Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion,
and Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley. Apparently,
the other 14 members of
the committee voted for the tax to die.
Leadership refuses to let tax go forward
If the full Senate had to vote on the tax, Crickenberger said,
they might approve it. But that
can't happen as long as the Senate
leadership refuses to let it go forward.
"The problem with the system is that one person can keep it from seeing
the light of day," she
Crickenberger wants to know why the Senate leadership worked so hard to
prevent the smokeless
tobacco tax from even coming to a
"Why is Craigo so opposed? Why is Tomblin? I don't know," she
Craigo said the Senate was sticking by its promise to state residents
"When you make those types of commitments, you don't make exceptions to
the rule," Criago
"We've been trying to educate lawmakers that money isn't the
issue with the smokeless tobacco
"Raising prices is the single most effective way to keep kids
using snuff or chew."
If anyone can get the Senate to break its no-new-taxes rule, it will be
the anti-tobacco lobby,
"If there is a tax that's going to pass, it's this one," he
Byus said she hopes the cancer society and others can finally win their
battle over the tax,
and soon. Her oldest son started using
grandmother had a cigarette-induced stroke. He made a deal to quit snuff
if she quit
smoking. So far, they've both stayed off tobacco.
Byus herself quit dipping snuff when she became pregnant with her son
more than 20 years ago.
But the pull of the addiction is still strong.
"To this day, I can't allow myself to walk or run," she
time I break a sweat, the
craving for tobacco is so strong, it
drives me crazy."
To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.