Tobacco tax hike debated at public hearing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Making smokers pay $1 more per pack for cigarettes would help West Virginia save lives, rein in medical costs and could raise revenue for substance-abuse services, public health advocates told lawmakers Wednesday.

At a Capitol hearing, nearly 30 people spoke out about a proposal (HB2973) to raise the state's cigarette tax from 55 cents to $1.55. Most spoke in favor of the legislation. Opponents included business operators and tobacco lobbyists, who said the legislation would cost jobs.

The bill also would raise the tax on smokeless tobacco from the current 7 percent of the wholesale price to 50 percent -- a 614 percent jump.

Wednesday's debate wasn't just about smoking. It also touched on state resources for substance-abuse prevention and treatment, which advocates say are under funded. Part of the revenue from the proposed tobacco tax hike would go to those services.

The state spends $690 million a year on tobacco-related health costs, said Chantal Fields of the American Lung Association.

"That should be a huge incentive for action to be taken," she said. "It's long overdue."

West Virginia has one of the nation's lowest tobacco tax rates. Advocates have pushed for a hike for years. The state last raised the tax in 2003, when the tax on a pack of cigarettes rose from 17 cents to 55.

Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, a candidate in this year's special election for governor, has said he does not support raising the tax.

A $1 increase on cigarette taxes is projected to raise $133 million a year. The proposed hike on smokeless tobacco would bring in another $27 million.

Supporters also say it would prevent more than 19,000 West Virginia kids from starting to smoke and spur 12,600 adults to quit.

The state also has the country's highest smoking rate, at more than 26 percent.

"All the rates, the numbers -- I'm here to mention to you that these are real people," said Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. "And they're real people suffering from real diseases" caused by tobacco.

Others who spoke in favor of a tax hike were religious leaders and representatives from various groups including AARP, the March of Dimes, the American Heart Association, West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, and the West Virginia Education Association.

Opponents said the tobacco industry is already highly taxed and regulated.

"We are trying to save people's jobs," said Regan Bartley, part owner and marketing director for Smoker Friendly, a chain of tobacco stores.

She and others said people would cross state borders to buy cheaper cigarettes. Tobacco lobbyist Chris Marr said the proposed tax increase would result in $400 million a year in West Virginia retail losses.

Michael Graney of One Stop questioned why some lawmakers want such a big increase "in one fell swoop."

"If we could do this over time and let the marketplace absorb it, then it would be fine," he said.

Lawmakers also heard Wednesday from recovering addicts and people who have lost relatives to drug overdoses. They said West Virginia needs more funding for substance-abuse treatment and prevention.

The Rev. Rose Eddington read a message from her friend, Devney Friel-Schenk, who lost her 28-year-old son, Billy, to a drug overdose last year.

"This is about the severe emotional impact of drug addiction on the mothers of West Virginia," she said. "We need resources to combat one blight on our mountain life and we get them by combating another." 

West Virginians are more likely than residents of any other state to die of a drug overdose.

Ted Johnson of Huntington choked up as he described the day he found his son, Adam, dead of a heroin overdose in 2007.

Today, he visits his son's grave two or three times a week.

"I will never be the same. I will always be empty," Johnson said. "I cut the grass at the gravesite with scissors because I want it to be perfect. No one else can touch it."

Reach Alison Knezevich at or 304-348-1240.