House bill would increase cigarette tax $1 per pack
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia smokers would pay $1 more per pack in taxes under a bill state lawmakers are considering.
The proposal (HB2973) would nearly triple the state tax on cigarettes from 55 cents to $1.55 to raise fund programs that fight substance abuse.
It would also raise the tax on smokeless tobacco from the current 7 percent of the wholesale price to 50 percent.
Members of the House of Delegates' Health and Human Resources Committee were set to take up the legislation Wednesday, but committee Chairman Don Perdue pulled it from the agenda because someone requested a public hearing on the issue.
Perdue, who sponsored the bill, wants it to accomplish two things: Cut down on the number of West Virginians who use tobacco, and raise money to fight substance abuse and smoking.
"Taxes should never be looked at arbitrarily," the Wayne County Democrat said. "But when something like substance abuse and [smoking] rise to the level of becoming lethal, then we have to do something about that. My challenge is to raise the level of understanding of how big that crisis is."
The Coalition for a Tobacco-Free West Virginia and a lobbyist representing behavioral health providers requested the public hearing, Perdue said. The hearing hasn't been scheduled, but he said he would hold it "sooner rather than later."
If the legislation even gets to acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's desk, it is unlikely to receive his signature.
He does not support increasing any taxes this year, spokeswoman Kimberly Osborne said in an e-mail to the Gazette on Wednesday evening.
Tomblin is running in the special election for governor. His campaign website prominently features the slogan, "More Jobs, Lower Taxes."
West Virginia's cigarette tax is the nation's sixth lowest. The national average is $1.45 per pack.
A $1 per pack increase is projected to raise an extra $133 million a year. It is unclear how much the hike on smokeless tobacco would raise.
Of that extra money, $60 million would finance a "West Virginia Healthy Future Fund," with $27 million devoted to a comprehensive tobacco prevention and cessation program, under the legislation.
The Legislature would decide how to spend the remaining money in the fund but would have to spend it on public health, substance abuse programs or health care.
Some Republicans on the health committee said they would oppose any tax hike.
Delegate Troy Andes, R-Putnam, said after the meeting that if lawmakers want to better fund health services, they "ought to find the funding for them in our current budget."
Delegate Jonathan Miller, R-Berkeley, said, "Tax policy shouldn't be used to force people into certain behavior."
Some lawmakers push for a tax hike every year, but the state hasn't raised the tax since 2003. That is when it jumped from 17 cents per pack to the current 55 cents.
West Virginia has the nation's highest smoking rate, at more 26 percent. It also leads the country in the proportion of pregnant women who smoke (about 30 percent).
Every neighboring state except Virginia has higher cigarette taxes, according to the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, which recently issued a report recommending a tax hike to rein in health costs and raise revenue.
Tobacco use costs West Virginia about $1.3 billion a year in health care, and another $1.1 billion in lost productivity, the report says.
Last month, the American Lung Association gave the state failing grades in tobacco prevention, indoor smoking restrictions, the tobacco tax, and quit-smoking programs. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that West Virginia spend nearly $28 million a year on tobacco control programs. The state spends less than $6 million on those programs.
Reach Alison Knezevich at alis [dot] [dot] [dot] [at] wvgazette [dot] com or 304-348-1240.