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Health Advocates: Small Tobacco Tax Hike May Be "Worse Than None"

West Virginia has one of the lowest tobacco taxes in the country and the highest smoking rate - twice the national average by number of packs sold. (Coalition for a Tobacco Free West Virginia)
West Virginia has one of the lowest tobacco taxes in the country and the highest smoking rate - twice the national average by number of packs sold. (Coalition for a Tobacco Free West Virginia)
January 15, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's proposed tobacco tax increase is so small that it may be worse than none at all, say anti-smoking advocates.

Tomblin wants to raise cigarette taxes by 45 cents a pack and tax e-cigarettes for the first time. That isn't enough to stop adults from smoking or stop teens from starting, said Chuck Hamsher, public-policy coordinator for the Coalition for a Tobacco Free West Virginia. A tax boost that small won't present smokers with enough "sticker shock" to quit, he said, and misses a rare chance to improve the state's poor health numbers.

"It would have nominal if any real public-health impact, and if a tax is too low, it would actually be a loss for the state," he said. "We have the highest smoking rates in the country and, because of that, we need to not waste this opportunity."

According to the governor's office, he doesn't want to chase away sales to residents of other states who would cross the border to buy smokes. If passed, the tax boost would raise almost $80 million a year.

Hamsher admitted that the state badly needs revenue to close a wide budget gap, but said West Virginia would save more in long-term health costs by reducing smoking. He pointed to the state's high rate of tobacco use by teens and the highest rate of any state among expectant mothers.

"Particularly with our kids, particularly with pregnant women, we'll have long-term savings because we might escape having another generation grow up being addicted to tobacco products," he said.

About one in four adult West Virginians use tobacco - also the highest rate in the country - as well as one in five teens. Each year in the state, opponents of smoking say, it causes 4,300 deaths and costs taxpayers in the state $1 billion. But tobacco tax increases have died at the Legislature for years amid strong opposition from convenience stores and other marketers.

However, Hamsher said, the idea is popular with voters.

"Poll after poll taken in West Virginia has shown the majority of West Virginians support a substantial tobacco tax increase," he said. "We don't want that to get blotted out by special interests that are looking to make sure that it doesn't have that public health impact."

More information is online at tobacco-free-wv.com.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV