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Another tobacco tax hike?

January 08, 2004

There's a dirty little secret about tobacco taxes that every lawmaker knows - the higher the tax, the more people quit and the less revenue there will eventually be.

Despite that, West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise is proposing another tobacco-tax increase as part of his last budget proposal. Lawmakers should fight this plan - unless all the revenue is dedicated to stop-smoking efforts.

Funding healthcare efforts was how Wise sold last year's 38-cent-per-pack increase, but this year he has said the new hike would be an alternative to cutting state programs.

But is there a more important program than preserving the health of West Virginia's citizens? The Associated Press, citing statistics gathered by the Centers for Disease Control, this week reported that West Virginia has the third-highest rate of adult smoking in the nation.

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That's almost 400,000 adult smokers, or about 28 percent of the population. And every smoker who has children is demonstrating by their example that smoking is all right.

Just as bad, smoking by parents has a variety of adverse effects on the children's health, according to the American Lung Association. Children with asthma whose parents smoke have their conditions exacerbated by second-hand smoke. Such children also have more colds and ear infections, ALA said.

Last year's tobacco tax increase went to plug holes in the Medicaid budget. That's a good thing, but it's also dealing with the problem on the back end, when smoking has already done its damage. West Virginia needs a program that promotes quitting - or never starting - before it becomes a habit that's nearly impossible to break.

Those who don't break it risk not living long enough to try. The American Red Cross reports that smoking's adverse effects claim 400,000 lives per year in the U.S. Smokers also have double the risk of heart attack and two to four times the risk of cardiac arrest.

The good news is that, given a chance, the body heals itself and after several years, the risk of heart-related problems becomes the same as that of someone who never smoked.

In the long run, improving West Virginian's health will improve the state government's bottom line. But that will happen only if lawmakers use a tobacco-tax increase as a long-term investment instead of a short-term budget fix.

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