I have no idea if this bill is going to pass, but this in itself is a pretty amazing development.
West Virginia, a solidly red Republican state (Obama got less than 30 percent of the vote in 2012) and either the No. 1- or No. 2-ranked smoking state in the nation (in the last survey, West Virginia was No. 2 at a staggering 29.9 percent smoking rate, just a tick behind Kentucky.), passed a pretty significant cigarette tax increase in the State Senate.
West Virginia’s cigarette tax is one of the lowest in the nation at 55 cents a pack, no surprise in such a conservative state with such a high smoking rate. The average state cigarette tax in the nation is about $1.50 a pack.
A bill was introduced in the W.Va. Legislature to raise the cigarette tax to $1 a pack, a pretty modest increase that would leave W.Va. still well below the national average tax. However, that bill, proposed by the governor, was amended to raise the tax by $1 a pack to $1.55 a pack, right around the national average.
In a Republican-dominated State Senate, the bill passed by a margin of 26-6. Wow. Republicans favoured the bill 12-6, joining 14 Democrats in favour. That blows me away.
The tax increase would raise an estimated $115 million and would help West Virginia balance a severely strapped budget.
In my mind, more importantly, the tax increase would likely make a dent in West Virginia’s shockingly high smoking rate. Studies have shown that a $1 a pack cigarette tax effectively lowers the smoking rate by 10 percent. It actually does help encourage smokers to quit to hit them in the pocketbook.
Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, a physician, noted that 10 times as many West Virginians die from tobacco-related illness as die from narcotics overdoses and said the existing 55-cent-a-pack tax is not enough to motivate smokers to quit.
“You have to hit somebody hard enough in the pocketbook that they say, ‘Now, I’ll quit,’ ” Takubo said.
While tobacco taxes are sometimes seen as inordinately burdensome on the poor, Takubo said smokers spend an average of $4,700 a year on cigarettes, money he suggested would greatly benefit low-income families.
“That’s a big number that can help out a lot of people — that’s cash,” he said.
Not coincidentally, West Virginia also has one of the highest lung cancer death rates in the nation, (also partly because of the state’s coal industry.).