WV lawmakers should consider tobacco tax

An editorial from the Parkersburg News and Sentinel 

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — Lawmakers in Charleston are working to hash out a state budget that is problematic, to say the least. Among the problems is shrinking revenue, a trend not likely to reverse any time soon. Because the budget crisis has reached a level that requires both spending cuts and a search for new sources of revenue, it may be time for legislators to consider means they had hoped to avoid.

For example, it may be time for that $1 increase to the tobacco tax. It has been estimated that doing so would bring in $100 million to $115 million annually.

Critics have suggested raising the tax is a punishment to poor people – smokers with more money will feel less of a pinch when they buy a pack. But the counter to that is simple. Smoking is a habit, and can be broken. In fact, some proponents of the bill suggest it would help people to quit; one woman reportedly claimed she “guaranteed” an extra dollar per pack would be the motivator that finally forced her to quit smoking. And, while it is not entirely clear a $1 increase would be punitive enough to force many people to quit smoking, it is much more likely to keep young people from getting started in the first place.

Meanwhile, small businesses in most counties bordering other states need not be as concerned as opponents to the increase suggest. West Virginia’s tobacco tax is already 55 cents; the increase would make it $1.55. That is still five cents per pack lower than Ohio’s or Pennsylvania’s $1.60; and 45 cents lower than Maryland’s $2. (Yes, Kentucky’s tobacco tax is 60 cents; and Virginia’s is an appalling 30 cents – already much lower than the Mountain State’s, and, in fact, the lowest in the country).

For a larger comparison, the median tobacco tax rate in the U.S. is $1.53; but in New York, the tax truly is punitive, at $4.35. West Virginia’s proposed $1.55 begins to sound downright reasonable.

Politicians concerned about having their names associated with a tax increase will likely find as many cuts as possible, first – and eliminating genuine government waste is essential to this process. But economic realities mean revenue increases of some kind are inevitable. Raising West Virginia’s tobacco tax may be an idea whose time has come.

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