Better than three out of five West Virginians favor an extra $1 tax on cigarettes to keep youngsters from getting hooked, pump more dollars into anti-tobacco programs and lower nicotine-linked health costs, a fresh poll revealed Tuesday.

Three legislators at a news briefing held by the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free West Virginia are willing to offer such legislation in the 2011 session.

If enacted, the higher tax would yield a projected $117 million more at the outset, while a corresponding hike in smokeless products would provide another $28 million.

Chuck Hamsher, representing the American Heart Association in the state, told reporters tobacco usage kills 3,800 residents annually, while diseases linked to it cost the state $690 million in direct health care costs, much of that absorbed by taxpayers.

“The horrible toll will only continue if we don’t act against it aggressively,” he said.

Each year, more than 9,000 minors light up for the first time and another 2,800 get addicted.

“If the trend continues,” Hamsher said, “4,600 kids alive today will die premature deaths from tobacco use.”

Experts agree higher taxes rank as the more effective means of reducing smoking, he said.

“When tobacco prices go up, tobacco use goes down, especially among kids,” he said.

Health chairs of both chambers — Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, and Don Perdue, D-Wayne — joined Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, in promoting the extra $1 tax per pack of cigarettes.

Prezioso cautioned any such legislation must be written so proceeds from the tax are pegged exclusively to tobacco cessation and education programs.

“We don’t want to see this as free money up for grabs that goes into general revenue that’s spent somewhere on other issues that don’t pertain to health care,” he said.

West Virginia lawmakers last raised the tobacco tax in 2003, moving it from 17 cents to 55 cents per pack.

That generated $55 million in more revenue the first year while smoking declined 14 percent, said Pete Fisher, a spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

Fisher allowed there would be some losses by Internet and cross-border sales, but said those would be minimal, short-lived and wouldn’t offset the long-range benefits to West Virginia’s society.

For instance, seven years ago, when West Virginia hiked its tax, Virginia imposed a mere 2.5 cents per pack and Kentucky only 3, but their revenues rose only 5 and 3 percent, respectively.

Virginia’s tax now stands at 30 cents per back and Kentucky’s at 60 cents.

“Tobacco health care costs will decline and we will be saving money almost immediately because of reduced health care costs due to reduced tobacco use,” Fisher said.

In the first five years of the proposed higher tax, he said, the state can expect an overall savings of $16.4 million in lower health care expenditures.

That will come in treating heart attacks, strokes and the effects of smoking during pregnancies, he said.

“Support for the tax increase is both broad and deep,” said Nathan Henry, representing the Mellman Group, which conducted the poll of 500 residents.

It has a built-in margin of error of 4.4 percent. That poll showed 63 percent of West Virginians want to see the cigarette tax increased.

Reflecting bipartisan support, the poll found 65 percent backing among Democrats, 61 percent with Republicans and 62 percent favorable rating with Independents.

“There was none of the partisan polarization that often accompanies tax increases,” he said.

“Voters simply view tobacco taxes through different lenses than other taxes.”

Thus, he concluded, lawmakers needn’t fear a backlash if such a tax increase is enacted in the 2011 session.

“Indeed,” he said, “evidence from our survey shows that instead of punishing politicians who would support a tobacco tax increase, voters are more likely to reward them.”

Nearly the same percentages arrived when the poll takers suggested an increase of 75 cents per back, Henry said.

In fact, the only change would be some $21.5 million less in projected revenues, he pointed out.

“We hear a lot of rhetoric to suggest it’s a death blow for politicians to consider raising taxes,” Perdue said.

“It certainly difficult and it’s not something we would employ with alacrity. This is a tax on a substance that is both dangerous and expensive to the citizens of West Virginia.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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