Cancer society suggests state tobacco tax hike

MORGANTOWN — The American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network is calling on West Virginia to raise its tobacco tax and restore its Tobacco Education Program funding.

These are two suggestions included in the network’s 16th annual “How Do You Measure Up” national progress report on legislative action to reduce cancer incidence and deaths.

West Virginia fared well in several areas, but these two areas are the biggest opportunities to affect change, said state spokeswoman Juliana Frederick Curry. They’d like to see the tax go up by at least another $1, preferably $1.50.

Legislators need to weigh the political and retail costs of a tax hike, she said, against the health risks that cost the state $1 billion a year, according to cancer society figures.

The tobacco tax was last raised in 2016. For a pack of cigarettes it went from 55 cents to $1.20. For other products, the tax on the wholesale price rose from 7 percent to 12 percent. A new tax on e-cigarette liquids was created, 7.5 cents per milliliter.

Curry knows there are several obstacles to raising it again so soon: the Republican majority’s general opposition to any tax hikes, and opposition by border-county legislators and OMEGA — the Oil Marketers & Grocers Association — who don’t want to lose sales to neighboring states where the taxes are already lower or would be lower after a $1.50 hike here.

Curry said that a tax hike won’t significantly affect border sales because most people just buy a pack or two when they stop at the convenience store. And health is more important. “Do we want to be a state people come to to buy cigarettes?”

(Neighboring state cigarette taxes are: Pennsylvania, $2.60; Maryland, $2; Ohio, $1.60; Kentucky, $1.10; Virginia, 30 cents with additional local taxes in some places.)

The Department of Health and Human Resources Tobacco Education Program saw its funding steadily dwindle from Fiscal Year 2013 through the current year as the state faced annual budget shortfalls and cuts. It received $5.68 million in FY 2013, $4.87 million in 2015 and $3.04 million in 2017.

The program received no money at all in FY 2018 and 2019.

A solid program, Curry said, helps adults quit and helps stop teens from starting.

DHHR spokeswoman Allison Adler told The Dominion Post that while the program has no funding, tobacco control efforts continue. The Division of Tobacco Prevention survives, without dedicated funding but with a single staff member.

The state’s tobacco quitline — 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) or 1-877-966-8784 — is still funded through the Bureau for Public Health, she said. “All remaining tobacco control efforts are funded with funds from a CDC tobacco control grant and some remaining carry-over of previous budget state funds.”

Gov. Jim Justice is responsible for crafting a state budget before the start of the next legislative session. He did not reply to requests for comment regarding the tobacco tax and Tobacco Education Program.

West Virginia fared well in several areas of the report, particularly in palliative care — which deals with alleviating the symptoms and pain and improving quality of life during a period of serious illness.

The network singled out Delegate Amy Summers, R-Taylor, for her leadership in passing palliative care legislation during the 2018 session. The statewide coalition created by that legislation is now being formed, Curry said.

West Virginia also scored well for providing access to colorectal cancer screenings.

And 33 of 55 counties have no-smoking laws on the books. Curry said the network is working with the other 22 to get laws passed rather than, for now, attempting to get a statewide smoking ban for public places.

But the state could stand to improve in a few other areas, the report said:

  • Funding falls short for the National Breast & Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. The Cancer Society recommends a state spend $1 for each $3 provided by the Centers for Disease Control — a 33 percent match. West Virginia provides only an 18 percent match.
  • With states taking stricter control of opioid prescriptions, the cancer society worries that cancer patients won’t get adequate pain relief. West Virginia is among the states that need to clarify its law on this topic.
  • The state Medicaid program doesn’t cover all seven FDA-approved smoking-cessation medications and needs to fund all seven.
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