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Education, public health organizations & others join calls for $1 cigarette tax hike

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Education, public health organizations & others join calls for $1 cigarette tax hike
By Shauna Johnson, WV MetroNews

 An increase of at least $1 to the state tax on a pack of cigarettes could make the difference for West Virginia’s physical and fiscal health, according to representatives from a coalition of West Virginia education, public health and faith-based community organizations.

As state budget talks continue, those groups came together Thursday at Charleston’s Appalachian Power Park to call on lawmakers to move forward with stalled tobacco tax increase proposals, including hikes to taxes on cigarettes, smokeless tobacco products and, for the first time, electronic cigarettes.

Joining them was Brooke Drake, a smoker from Charleston.

“We clearly need the tax revenue, but a significant increase in tobacco prices will actually be a service to the people that you are taxing and that’s really what we should focus on. We are helping them, not just looking to fill in a few cracks in our budget,” she said.

“A dollar or more is absolutely necessary.”

Amy Tolliver, director of the West Virginia Perinatal Partnership, agreed.

“We know from experience with other states that it has to be a significant price increase in order to make an impact on the smoker,” Tolliver said in arguing against a smaller tax hike.

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin had proposed a 45 cent per pack addition to the existing 55 cent cigarette tax.

Tolliver sees higher tobacco tax rates as one part of a comprehensive plan to address West Virginia’s high smoking rates and the steep health care costs associated with smoking through Medicaid, PEIA, other insurance providers or charity care.

More pregnant women, 28 percent, smoke in West Virginia than any other U.S. state. Forty percent of all Medicaid births are to smoking mothers, according to Tolliver.

Making tobacco more expensive, Tolliver told MetroNews, could change that. “We know that this is a no brainer, it’s a win-win situation where we can address a public health concern and fill some holes in the budget,” she said.

Nearly 20 percent of West Virginia’s high school students smoke, she noted.

A $1 per pack increase is projected to generate $121 million with an additional $27 million possible by increasing the tax on other tobacco products in equivalent fashion.

Coalition members said, without additional tobacco tax revenues, organizational budgets are facing additional state funding cuts with potentially “devastating results.”

This week, the state Bureau for Medical Services within the Department of Health and Human Resources sent letters to 24,000 Medicaid providers warning of possible slowdowns in reimbursements because of the current budget deficit, estimated at $354 million and reportedly growing.

During the 2016 Regular Legislative Session, the state Senate passed a tobacco tax bill that included a $1 per pack cigarette tax increase, but the proposal hit a wall in the state House of Delegates and remains hung up there as budget talks continue.

West Virginia is facing a projected $270 million budget shortfall during the 2017 Fiscal Year that begins on July 1.

Earlier this week on MetroNews “Talkline,” House Speaker Tim Armstead (R-Kanawha, 40) said the following of potential tax increases: “I just don’t see that happening. I’m not supportive of that and I don’t think very many of our members are.”

House Democrats had previously publicly called for a $1 per pack cigarette tax hike.

“Raising the tobacco tax to a $1.55 instead of (the current) 55 cents, it’s not going to solve all of our problems, but it is going to help us deal with our shortfalls today and improve our long-term fiscal health,” said Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

“This is as much an economic issue as it is a public health issue,” said Christine Compton, American Heart Association government relations director, in a statement. “Refusing to consider a $1 increase in the tobacco tax in the face of a crushing budget deficit puts the West Virginia way of life at risk.”

Currently, West Virginia’s cigarette tax is the 4th lowest in the U.S. and has not been raised in more than 12 year.

Even with a $1 increase, the tax would remain below the national average of $1.61 per pack, according to Thursday’s speakers, who said it was “not an outrageous request.”

The organizations that are part of the coalition are the following:

* West Virginia Education Association
* West Center on Budget & Policy
* West Virginia Perinatal Partnership
* West Virginia Osteopathic Medical Association
* West Virginia Council of Churches
* West Virginia State Medical Association
* West Virginia Academy of Family Practitioners
* West Virginia American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
* West Virginia American College of Radiology
* West Association of Free & Charitable Clinics
* American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network
* American Heart Association
* American Lung Association
* Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids
* Americans for Nonsmokers Rights
* Coalition for Tobacco Free West Virginia