West Virginia has one of the nation’s worst teen smoking and spit tobacco use rates, but members of the House health committee aren’t sure that targeting flavored tobacco is the answer.
The Health and Human Resources Committee delayed action on a proposed ban this week, all but dooming the measure. The bill has until Friday to clear both that committee and House Judiciary as the 60-day legislative session winds down.
A 2009 federal law forbids flavored cigarettes. Co-sponsored by House health Chairman Don Perdue, the bill would adopt that ban on the state level while also extending it such related products as cigars and smokeless, dissolvable and hookah tobacco.
Tobacco companies offer these products in such flavors as chocolate, vanilla, cherry, peach and mango. Declaring that such products are flavored to entice minors, the bill would join the state’s ban on flavored “bidis,” a hand-rolled tobacco product. The bill would exempt menthol, mint or wintergreen-flavored products.
Delegate Carol Miller questioned who should oversee keeping adult products out of the hands of children. The legal smoking age is 18.
“Whose responsibility is this? Is this the government’s responsibility or is it their parents’ responsibility?” the Cabell County Republican said during the committee’s Monday discussion of the bill.
Surrounding states don’t have such bans. Delegate Tiffany Lawrence, D-Jefferson, cited the potential effect on West Virginia retailers, particular in border areas like hers.
“A lot of times, if we prohibit something, they’ll drive across the border to Hagerstown, Md., and bring it back sort of underground,” Lawrence said. “We really didn’t accomplish our goal.”
Delegate Patrick Lane said such a ban could hurt the Swisher International factory in Wheeling, which makes flavored cigars. Lane, R-Kanawha, cited statements from one of several tobacco lobbyists during the meeting who warned that the misdemeanor offense and $500 to $5,000 fines threatened by the bill would cost the plant’s 160 workers their jobs.
Delegate Linda Goode Phillips agreed, noting the language in the anti-bidis law that forbids the import, sale or distribution of that product.
“Even if they tried to do all that outside the state, they would still be distributing because they would be located in Wheeling,” said Phillips, D-Wyoming and an elementary school counselor.
Delegate Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette and a physician, questioned whether the measure would ban the flavored varieties offered by her husband’s exotic cigar club.
Various federal statistics from the past decade rank West Virginia in the Top Five among states for teen smoking and spit tobacco use. Perdue, D-Wayne and pharmacist, told the committee that state also has one of the worst rates for tobacco use among pregnant teens. For all residents, tobacco use is the leading cause of death and disease in West Virginia, according to the state Bureau of Public Health.
“The real question is, does flavoring poison make it such that you would utilize poison, because it takes better?” Perdue said. “The answer is of course, yes. If you could flavor cyanide so that it tastes like chocolate, then we’d have people dying all over the place.”
Perdue cited the various questions posed during Monday’s meeting before having the bill set aside for now.
“I know that the industry has worked all of you very hard today,” Perdue said. “I know there’s enormous antipathy toward the possibility that we may reduce income or jobs or what have you.”