Lynn Byus started dipping snuff on a dare. Byus, 39, now works for the West Virginia Chapter of the American
Cancer Society. She giggled alittle when she told about how she became addicted to smokeless tobacco
as a 12-year-old. Wasshe 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 countyfair, she was standing in line to go on the Tilt-a-Whirl ride. She begged the boys again to lether on the team. All right, one boy told her, you can play, but only if you can take a dip of snuff and not getsick. "It burnt really bad, but I wouldn't let anybody know," she aid.
"I blamed getting sick on theride." Peer pressure may have got her hooked, Byus said, but the cheapness of nuff kept her comingback. She wants state lawmakers to tax
as a way to keep kids from starting tochew. "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 andchewing 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
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 avote. The bill died in the Senate Finance Committee. Sen. Oshel Craigo, D-Putnam, is chairmanof the committee. That committee had six of the top 10 recipients of tobacco
contributions in 1998, according toa Sunday Gazette-Mail analysis of the People's Election Reform Coalition (PERC) campaignfinance database. Three groups that publicly opposed the smokeless tobacco tax
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. Inaddition, 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," heaid.
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
raiseany 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 thedeath of the tobacco tax
, said Sara Crickenberger, executive director of the American LungAssociation 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 offsmokeless 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 theirresources 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
executives lined up in front of a congressional committee and said that tobacco
was notaddictive, they lost all their credibility, she aid.
Finally, the tax
gained some powerful allies when Delegate Larry Linch, D-Harrison, added anamendment 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. SenatePresident Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, promised to kill the bill once it landed on his side ofthe Capitol. Opposition from the Senate leadership is usually enough to stop any bill, nomatter how popular. Still, when the smokeless tobacco tax
passed the House on a 60 to 38 vote, Crickenbergerallowed herself to hope. The bill had two hurdles to clear before it could make it to the floorof the Senate: the Health and Human Resources Committee, and the Finance Committee. It clearedthe 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 leadsinto a receptionist's office, and then through another door into committee chairman Craigo'soffice. A member of the Senate staff shooed her away, and closed the door. The senators came ina 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 homefrom the bill. The only discussion came from Sen. Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha, asking where fundingfor the veterans home would come from. He was reassured the funding would come from elsewherein 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 avoice vote, Crickenberger and the other anti-tobacco
people resorted to trying to read thesenators' 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 ofcancer of the esophagus in 1994, and Helmick was his senator. Crickenberger had told him thestory 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 wastoo late; he had developed cancer. After nine months of radiation and surgery, the doctors senthim home to Pocahontas County to die. "Walt knew what Dad went through," she aid.
"At the end, I thought that might make adifference." 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 evensee 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 therest 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," Crickenbergeraid.
"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. MarthaWalker, 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 thatcan'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," sheaid.
Crickenberger wants to know why the Senate leadership worked so hard to prevent the smokelesstobacco 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 tobaccotax
," Crickenberger aid.
"Raising prices is the single most effective way to keep kids fromusing snuff or chew." If anyone can get the Senate to break its no-new-taxes rule, it will be the anti-tobacco
"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 yearafter his
grandmother had a cigarette-induced stroke. He made a deal to quit snuff if she quitsmoking. 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, thecraving for tobacco
is so strong, it drives me crazy." To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.