SNUFFED OUT


Lynn Byus started dipping snuff on a dare.     Byus, 39, now works for the West Virginia Chapter of the American
  Cancer Society. She giggled a little when she told about how she became   addicted to smokeless tobacco as a 12-year-old. Was she   embarrassed about her tobacco habit?     "Now, yes, I'm embarrassed by it," she said, "but then, no. We didn't
  know any better."     Byus wanted to play basketball with the boys, but they wouldn't let  
her. During the county fair, she was standing in line to go on the   Tilt-a-Whirl ride. She begged the boys again to let her on the team.     All right, one boy told her, you can play, but only if you can take a   dip of snuff and not get sick.     "It burnt really bad, but I wouldn't let anybody know," she
  • aid.
  • "I   blamed getting sick on the ride."     Peer pressure may have got her hooked, Byus said, but the cheapness of  
  • nuff kept her coming back. She wants state lawmakers to
  •   tax smokeless tobacco as a way to keep kids from starting   to chew.     "If it costs more, more kids will quit," she
  • aid.
  •     Most West Virginians agree with Byus that smokeless tobacco  
  • eeds to be taxed. A 1998 poll, done by the Coalition for a
  •   Tobacco-Free West Virginia, showed 83 percent want to tax  
  • nuff and chewing tobacco. West Virginia is one of only nine
  •  
  • tates that do not tax smokeless tobacco.
  •     Not some evil thing     Earlier this year, it looked like Byus and others like her would get   their way. A tax on smokeless tobacco had the support of   Gov. Cecil Underwood; House Speaker Robert Kiss, D-Raleigh; veterans;   health groups; and a majority of delegates in the House.     But opposition from members of the Senate leadership kept the issue   from even coming up for a vote. The bill died in the Senate Finance   Committee. Sen. Oshel Craigo, D-Putnam, is chairman of the committee.     That committee had six of the top 10 recipients of tobacco   contributions in 1998, according to a Sunday Gazette-Mail analysis of   the People's Election Reform Coalition (PERC) campaign finance   database.     Three groups that publicly opposed the smokeless tobacco   tax - tobacco lobbyists, tobacco political action   committees, and the West Virginia Wholesalers Association - gave a total   of $15,550 in 1998 to seven members of the Senate Finance Committee.     They gave $5,500 to Craigo's 1998 campaign, more than any other member   of the Legislature. In addition, Craigo owns part interest in a service  
  • tation in Nitro that sells tobacco products. He said neither
  •   his personal or campaign finances affected his decision-making.     "It's not an issue with me. I'm in the retail business, and I   understand their concerns," he
  • aid.
  •     Craigo said he opposed the tax on smokeless tobacco   because of two promises: one to tobacco farmers in his district  
  • ot to raise tobacco taxes, the other to voters statewide not to
  •   raise any taxes. He also helped put an additional $800,000 into   anti-tobacco advertising.     "This is not some evil thing you guys would like to conjure up," Craigo  
  • aid.
  •     Somebody's got to look out for you     For whatever reason, Craigo and other members of the Senate leadership   are responsible for the death of the tobacco tax, said   Sara Crickenberger, executive director of the American Lung Association   of West Virginia. All she wanted from them was one vote of the whole   Senate.     "If we could get leadership to give us a floor vote, we knew we'd stand   a chance," she
  • aid.
  •     For four years, she had tried to convince lawmakers that the   best way to get young people off smokeless tobacco was to raise   its price. For three years, the bill went nowhere.     But in 2000, several things changed. A group of anti-tobacco   organizations combined their resources and hired Tom Susman, a former   legislator and veteran lobbyist.     "Somebody's got to be looking out for you," Crickenberger
  • aid.
  •     The national tobacco settlement also exposed a different side of   the tobacco industry. When tobacco executives lined up in   front of a congressional committee and said that tobacco was   not addictive, they lost all their credibility, she
  • aid.
  •     Finally, the tax gained some powerful allies when Delegate Larry   Linch, D-Harrison, added an amendment that would have used the   tax to fund nursing homes for veterans.     Even if the bill passed the House, Crickenberger knew it would probably   die later. Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, promised to kill   the bill once it landed on his side of the Capitol. Opposition from the   Senate leadership is usually enough to stop any bill, no matter how   popular.     Still, when the smokeless tobacco tax passed the House on   a 60 to 38 vote, Crickenberger allowed herself to hope. The bill had   two hurdles to clear before it could make it to the floor of the   Senate: the Health and Human Resources Committee, and the Finance   Committee. It cleared the first, but the second would trip it up.  
      On March 8, Crickenberger was hoping to catch senators before they   voted on whether the tax could advance to the full Senate. The   committee meeting was late getting started.     Only one senator was in the committee room. Crickenberger stood next to   a side door that leads into a receptionist's office, and then through   another door into committee chairman Craigo's office. A member of the   Senate staff shooed her away, and closed the door. The senators came   in a few minutes later through that door, one right after the other in   a line.     "When they sat down, it went very smoothly," she said, "and with very   little discussion."     First, Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, moved to withdraw funding for the   popular veteran's home from the bill. The only discussion came from   Sen. Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha, asking where funding for the veterans home   would come from. He was reassured the funding would come from   elsewhere in the budget. Plymale's amendment passed on a voice vote.     The anti-tobacco activists wanted to know how each member of the   committee voted on the bill, but committee votes are usually voice   votes. Since each senator's position is not recorded on a voice vote,   Crickenberger and the other anti-tobacco people resorted to trying   to read the senators' lips. They each took one senator; Crickenberger   was trying to watch the lips of Sen. Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas.     Crickenberger had a personal reason to watch Helmick's vote on this   tax. Her father died of cancer of the esophagus in 1994, and   Helmick was his senator. Crickenberger had told him the story about how   her father became addicted to snuff.     "My parents stopped smoking when my mom found out she was pregnant,"   she
  • aid.
  • "At the time, the tobacco companies called snuff the  
  • afe alternative to smoking."
  •     Her father dipped Skoal for more than 30 years before he finally was   able to quit. But it was too late; he had developed cancer. After nine   months of radiation and surgery, the doctors sent him home to   Pocahontas County to die.     "Walt knew what Dad went through," she
  • aid.
  • "At the end, I thought   that might make a difference."     Crickenberger tried to look Helmick in the eyes, but couldn't.     "They're sitting up above us, and the chairs lean way back," she said,   "so it's hard to even see what they say."     Then, Sen. Billy Wayne Bailey, D-Wayne, moved to postpone the   tobacco tax bill indefinitely. This parliamentary move is   attempted only a few times each session, and kills the bill for   the rest of the session. After no discussion, the motion passed, and   the tobacco tax was dead.     "Our people started crying - not sobbing, but they had tears in their   eyes," Crickenberger
  • aid.
  • "We felt like we lost our chance on the   floor, our day in court, so to speak."     Later, three senators registered their opposition to both of the killer   motions: Sen. Martha Walker, D-Kanawha, Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion,   and Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley. Apparently, the other 14 members of   the committee voted for the tax to die.     Leadership refuses to let tax go forward     If the full Senate had to vote on the tax, Crickenberger said,   they might approve it. But that can't happen as long as the Senate   leadership refuses to let it go forward.     "The problem with the system is that one person can keep it from seeing   the light of day," she
  • aid.
  •     Crickenberger wants to know why the Senate leadership worked so hard to   prevent the smokeless tobacco tax from even coming to a   vote.     "Why is Craigo so opposed? Why is Tomblin? I don't know," she
  • aid.
  •     Craigo said the Senate was sticking by its promise to state residents  
  • ot to raise taxes.
  •     "When you make those types of commitments, you don't make exceptions to   the rule," Criago
  • aid.
  •     "We've been trying to educate lawmakers that money isn't the   issue with the smokeless tobacco tax," Crickenberger  
  • aid.
  • "Raising prices is the single most effective way to keep kids   from using snuff or chew."     If anyone can get the Senate to break its no-new-taxes rule, it will be   the anti-tobacco lobby, Craigo
  • aid.
  •     "If there is a tax that's going to pass, it's this one," he  
  • aid.
  •     Byus said she hopes the cancer society and others can finally win their   battle over the tax, and soon. Her oldest son started using  
  • nuff in the seventh grade, and only stopped this year after his
  •   grandmother had a cigarette-induced stroke. He made a deal to quit snuff   if she quit smoking. So far, they've both stayed off tobacco.     Byus herself quit dipping snuff when she became pregnant with her son   more than 20 years ago. But the pull of the addiction is still strong.     "To this day, I can't allow myself to walk or run," she
  • aid.
  • "Every   time I break a sweat, the craving for tobacco is so strong, it   drives me crazy."     To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.    
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