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More research, please

February 23, 1999

Like generals on a battlefield arguing over which tactics are most likely to produce a victory, members of the West Virginia Legislature are debating the best method to discourage young people from using tobacco. We suggest that both sides need to do more research on the topic.

On one side is Gov. Cecil Underwood, who proposed a 25 percent tax increase on smokeless tobacco and other non-cigarette tobacco products, following a survey that found that 17 percent of all adult males in the state use smokeless tobacco. That's the highest rate in the nation, and 10 percent above the national average.

Other lawmakers have since jumped on the bandwagon, upping the ante by proposing even higher taxes on smokeless tobacco and cigarettes.

On the other side are Republican state senators, who say they won't vote for any increase in tobacco taxes unless there's an offsetting reduction in other taxes. They're joined by the owners of convenience stores and tobacco wholesalers who testified that higher prices won't discourage tobacco use, and would teach children that it's not them, but the tobacco companies which are responsible for their unhealthy habits. It could also lead to an increase in crime, they argued, because it would become profitable to smuggle tobacco into West Virginia from areas where it's taxed at a lower rate.

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What strikes us about all these arguments is that they are based on intuition and gut feelings rather than on any fact-based research. Even if higher tobacco taxes make sense from the standpoint of providing more money to deal with tobacco-related illnesses, citizens ought to insist that lawmakers base their decisions on research and not guesses.

Have higher taxes discouraged youth tobacco use elsewhere? Have other areas experienced smuggling problems after enacting higher taxes? Are there other, more effective methods in use that discourage tobacco use? Until such questions are answered with real research, instead of this collection of hunches and anecdotes being passed around now, the legislature should resist this tax increase.

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