The state of West Virginia, which has the nation’s worst smoking rate, faces a dilemma. Support has grown among WV voters since 2010 to increase the tobacco tax by $1. This increase would add much needed money to the state coffers and would help fund programs to reduce tobacco use. And it is supported across the board by Republicans (69%), Democrats (66%) and Independents (67%).
The idea is more popular than other ways of dealing with the budget shortfall, such as increasing taxes on business or the state sales tax, or reducing funding for health care programs or higher education. About 75% of voters also support taxing smokeless tobacco and cigars at a rate similar to cigarettes. West Virginia’s 55 cents per pack cigarette tax puts it at 44th place, far below the $1.48 per pack national average.
So if the voters favor raising the tax and the Governor’s Advisory Council on Substance Abuse recommends the increase, what’s the hold up? Apparently it’s the Governor himself. He “doesn’t think right now is a good time to be taxing families.” Supposedly his opposition will “hobble chances that the 2013 Legislature will price cigarettes out of reach for teens.”
At a time where national smoking rates have fallen to below 20%, West Virginia comes in at 28.6%, ranking it 50th among the states. Adults using smokeless tobacco didn’t fare any better with 7.5%, ranking the state at 48th. And these numbers are just for the adults. Youth smoking and smokeless tobacco use are also high. West Virginia ranks 32nd among 44 states for youth smoking at 19.1%, and 37th among 40 states for smokeless tobacco use at 14.4%.
Unlike 28 other states, West Virgina also doesn’t have statewide smoking restrictions in place for workplaces, restaurants or bars. Smoking is also legal in child care centers. County health boards, not the state, are responsible for setting their own smoking bans. So far less than 33% of the counties, 18 out of 55, have imposed bans.
So, what exactly is the dilemma for West Virginia? Not everyone will feel the tax hike on tobacco, unlike an increase on the state sales tax. The $1 a pack tax applied to cigarettes is nothing compared to the amount of money the state will shell out for health care costs in the coming years. Raising taxes will create a deterrent for youth to never start using tobacco as well as an incentive for current smokers to quit.
It’s a win-win for the state: increased taxes for the state, less youth smoking and improved health for the West Virginians.
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