Special Interests Snuffed Out Cigarette Tax

While the number of smokers in other states is dropping, West Virginia continues to have the highest rate of smokers of any state in the country, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some state lawmakers blame special interest groups for blocking efforts to reduce smoking cigarettes rates in the Mountain State.

The topic was tackled on the July 9 edition of "Decision Makers" with West Virginia Media CEO Bray Cary.

Despite the state's efforts, the number of West Virginians smoking cigarettes has stayed stagnant at nearly 27 percent for a couple of years. Kanawha County's chief health officer told Cary that if the numbers don't start going down, it has the potential to break the back of the state budget.

"Tobacco is sort of a precursor to a lot of chronic disease burden for our state," said Dr. Rahul Gupta, health director for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

West Virginia's 55-cent tax on cheap cigarettes is one of the lowest in the nation. Lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to push through a bill this past legislative session that would have raised the tax on cigarettes by $1 per pack to a $1.55. Under the proposed legislation, a portion of the increased revenue would have been dedicated to tobacco prevention efforts and education programs.

Gupta and two top members of the state House of Delegates, Del. Don Perdue, D-Wayne, and Del. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, agreed during the discussion about the issue on Decision Makers that the state sales tax on cigarettes online must be raised.

Carmichael, the House minority whip, said, “The financial burden upon West Virginia is enormous – from premature deaths to lost productivity in the workplace to the direct health care costs that our state spends to prop up and subsidize smoking cigarettes."

But Perdue, the chairman of the House Health and Human Resources Committee, acknowledged that the tobacco industry is very strong.

When Cary asked if the tobacco industry killed a bill that would have increased the state tax on cigarettes, Perdue responded, "Well, with respect to what happened to the tobacco tax, certainly they did. They certainly had the capacity to bring enough confusion to the table. When legislators are not sure, they'll often vote 'no' than they'll vote 'yes.’ ”

Carmichael added, "At the end of the day, we're talking about raising $120 million worth of new tax revenue on cigarettes. It's the right thing to do. It's good for the health of our citizens and that tax money needs to come off another area."

Several on the show suggested the food tax or the corporate tax could be lowered if the tax on buy cigarettes were raised.

Gupta said that while the tax on discount cigarettes is an important tool, there must be a comprehensive tobacco control strategy applied statewide.