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SNUFFED OUT

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

she

 

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

sick.

 

 

"It burnt really bad, but I wouldn't let anybody know," she

  • aid.
  • "I

     

    blamed getting sick on the

    ride."

     

     

    Peer pressure may have got her hooked, Byus said, but the cheapness of

     

  • nuff kept her coming

    back. She wants state lawmakers to

  •  

    tax smokeless tobacco as a way to keep kids from starting

     

    to

    chew.

     

     

    "If it costs more, more kids will quit," she

  • aid.
  •  

     

    Most West Virginians agree with Byus that smokeless tobacco

     

  • eeds to be taxed. A 1998 poll,

    done by the Coalition for a

  •  

    Tobacco-Free West Virginia, showed 83 percent want to tax

     

  • nuff and

    chewing tobacco. West Virginia is one of only nine

  •  

  • tates that do not tax smokeless tobacco.
  •  

     

    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,

    D-Raleigh; veterans;

     

    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

    finance

     

    database.

     

     

    Three groups that publicly opposed the smokeless tobacco

     

    tax - tobacco lobbyists, tobacco

    political action

     

    committees, and the West Virginia Wholesalers Association - gave a total

     

    of

    $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

     

  • tation in Nitro that sells tobacco products.

    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

  • aid.
  •  

     

    Craigo said he opposed the tax on smokeless tobacco

     

    because of two promises: one to tobacco

    farmers in his district

     

  • ot to raise tobacco taxes, the other to voters statewide not to
  •  

    raise

    any taxes. He also helped put an additional $800,000 into

     

    anti-tobacco advertising.

     

     

    "This is not some evil thing you guys would like to conjure up," Craigo

     

  • aid.
  •  

     

    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

    Association

     

    of West Virginia. All she wanted from them was one vote of the whole

     

    Senate.

     

     

    "If we could get leadership to give us a floor vote, we knew we'd stand

     

    a chance," she

  • aid.
  •  

     

    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

  • aid.
  •  

     

    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

     

    not

    addictive, they lost all their credibility, she

  • aid.
  •  

     

    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

    matter how

     

    popular.

     

     

    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

    of the

     

    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

     

    in

    a few minutes later through that door, one right after the other in

     

    a line.

     

     

    "When they sat down, it went very smoothly," she said, "and with very

     

    little discussion."

     

     

    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

     

    elsewhere

    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

    voice vote,

     

    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,"

     

    she

  • aid.
  • "At the time,

    the tobacco companies called snuff the

     

  • afe alternative to smoking."
  •  

     

    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

  • aid.
  • "At the end, I thought

     

    that might make a

    difference."

     

     

    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

     

    the

    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

     

    eyes," Crickenberger

  • aid.
  • "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

  • aid.
  •  

     

    Crickenberger wants to know why the Senate leadership worked so hard to

     

    prevent the smokeless

    tobacco tax from even coming to a

     

    vote.

     

     

    "Why is Craigo so opposed? Why is Tomblin? I don't know," she

  • aid.
  •  

     

    Craigo said the Senate was sticking by its promise to state residents

     

  • ot to raise taxes.
  •  

     

    "When you make those types of commitments, you don't make exceptions to

     

    the rule," Criago

  • aid.
  •  

     

    "We've been trying to educate lawmakers that money isn't the

     

    issue with the smokeless tobacco

    tax," Crickenberger

     

  • aid.
  • "Raising prices is the single most effective way to keep kids

     

    from

    using snuff or chew."

     

     

    If anyone can get the Senate to break its no-new-taxes rule, it will be

     

    the anti-tobacco lobby,

    Craigo

  • aid.
  •  

     

    "If there is a tax that's going to pass, it's this one," he

     

  • aid.
  •  

     

    Byus said she hopes the cancer society and others can finally win their

     

    battle over the tax,

    and soon. Her oldest son started using

     

  • nuff in the seventh grade, and only stopped this year

    after his

  •  

    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

  • aid.
  • "Every

     

    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.

     

     


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