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Health insurance, tobacco bills advancing in House

by Shawn Gainer

STAFF WRITER

CHARLESTON -- The House of Delegates has passed a bill that would allow a state income tax reduction for people who purchase insurance for long-term health care.

Also, the House Health and Resources Committee has forwarded several bills related to tobacco, including Gov. Cecil Underwood's proposed tax on smokeless tobacco.

The health insurance tax bill, sponsored by Del. Sam Cann, D-Harrison, would allow a taxpayer or a spouse dependent or child who purchases long-term health care insurance to use premium payments to adjust federal gross income for the purpose of calculating state income tax payments, to the extent allowed by federal law.

"If you have a sick parent or child and you purchase this kind of insurance, you can adjust gross income for state taxes," Cann said.

"Even if you have assistance, the balances you have to pay for extended health care are expensive. It helps people who need to maintain that kind of coverage."

In his State of the State address, Underwood called for a tax on smokeless tobacco, noting West Virginia is No. 1 in per-capita use of smokeless tobacco.

In a bill forwarded from the House Health and Human Resources Committee, units of smokeless tobacco would be taxed at 25 percent of the wholesale price, effective July, 1 2000.

The bill also contains a "bootlegging provision": Anyone in possession of more than $30 in market value of tobacco products or more than 20 packs of cigarettes, without a stamp to show they were purchased in West Virginia, would be presumed to be evading state taxes.

The tax is expected to raise $7 million, which would go to the state's general fund.

Another amendment, added by Del. Tal Hutchins, D-Ohio, would require the state to analyze the economic costs to producers and distributors of smokeless tobacco.

Proponents of the tax believe raising the price of snuff and chewing tobacco will help reduce use by young people. Opponents contend it will not.

Del. Tom Luisios, D-Fayette, spoke against the bill in committee.

"I can remember the price of a can of snuff going up from 19 cents to $3.

"The reason I quit wasn't price. I saw people with mouth cancer and it frightened me out of using tobacco."

Sen. Sarah Minear-R, Tucker, said Friday the bill would not likely pass in the Senate.

"It appears to me that there aren't enough votes in the Senate to pass it.

"There may not even be enough votes in the House," Minear said. "It's bad timing to propose a tax increase in an election year."

Minear added she agrees with Louisios' view that education and awareness of health risks would be a more effective deterrent to smokeless tobacco use.

However, the bill does have dedicated supporters, including Del. Mary Pearl Compton, D-Monroe, who chairs the House Health and Human Resources Committee. Del. Barbara Fleishauer, D-Monongalia, another committee member who supports the tax, said she believes price increases are a proven deterrent to smokeless tobacco use.

"We're the only state in the country that doesn't do it.

"There's good statistical evidence that price really does make a difference to young people," Fleishauer said. "I just think it's a health issue."

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