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Senate panel endorses tobacco licensing measure

by Randy Coleman

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHARLESTON -- Photo identification and store licenses would be required for the purchase or sale of tobacco products in West Virginia under a proposal endorsed Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The proposal also would strip merchants of their tobacco licenses if they are caught more than once selling to minors.

"This bill has teeth. That's why it's good," said Sen. John Mitchell, D-Kanawha.

The bill is similar to a measure passed recently by the House, but the versions differ on how much a license would cost.

The Senate bill, SB502, would offer licenses for annual $10 fees and is generally favored by retailers. A license under the House version, HB2821, could cost up to $100 a year.

The American Heart Association supports the House bill, organization spokesman Mike Withers said.

"We think the licenses should cost more than $10, because the fees could help support ongoing enforcement," Withers said.

John Hodges, a lobbyist who represents tobacco wholesalers and retailers, said $100 is too steep.

"The House bill says (licenses) wouldn't have to cost $100. But you know how it is. If they can cost $100, they probably will," Hodges said. "A $100 is an awful lot for some of the retailers to pay, especially the chains, because some of them have a lot of stores."

Retailers, however, don't object to the intent, Hodges said.

"We're trying to support some things that would keep (tobacco) out of the hands of kids," he said.

Under the House bill, businesses caught selling tobacco to minors would be required to pay $200 for a first offense. Subsequent penalties up to the fourth offense range from $500 to $5,000.

Fines under the Senate bill would range from $25 to $500.

Under both bills, store owners could temporarily forfeit their licenses if caught selling tobacco products to minors more than once.

The Senate bill says retailers would lose their licenses for three days for a second offense and up to a year for a fourth offense. The House version ranges from a month for a second offense to up to two years for a fourth offense.

"That's an important part of the bill," Withers said. "We believe the retailers don't care so much about fines, but they sure do care about the ability to sell their products."

West Virginia stands to lose 40 percent of an annual $8.4 million federal Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment grant if it does not reduce the rate of tobacco purchases by youths.

In 1999, youths were able to buy tobacco products 36 percent of the time. That exceeded the rate of 20 percent the state is allowed to have and still be in compliance with federal law.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources is also working to keep $3.4 million in federal grant money. The agency announced plans last month to spend $801,308 during the next fiscal year that begins July 1 to reduce the sale of tobacco products to those under the age of 18.

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On the Net: West Virginia Legislature: http://www.legis.state.wv.us

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