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Substance-abuse prevention money skipped

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will try to address the Mountain State's substance-abuse problem without raising taxes -- despite the recommendations of an advisory council, appointed by Tomblin, that said raising taxes could help.

Tomblin's Advisory Council on Substance Abuse released a report last week recommending, among other things, that the state consider a tax on alcohol, tobacco and lottery resources to fund the prevention and treatment of substance abuse.

However, during Wednesday night's State of the State address, Tomblin recommended a budget with no new taxes. The governor did not mention the council's suggestion of using a tax.

"We're still coming out of a recession," Tomblin spokeswoman Kimberly Osborne said this week. "As you heard [Wednesday] night, the governor made several significant proposals aimed at substance abuse. This is just a start of a plan to address substance abuse in West Virginia."

The governor said in his speech that he would require that people pass a drug screening before enrolling in tax-funded work-force training programs. He also said the state must use a prescription-monitoring program to stop pill abusers from doctor shopping.

Advocates for an increase in the cigarette tax said they did not expect such an increase to pass during an election year, when politicians don't want their opponents to be able to accuse them of supporting tax increases.

Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, said that, if not for the election year, the advisory council's recommendations might have given the tax increase a fighting chance.

Last year, efforts to raise the state's cigarette tax by a dollar per pack to fund drug treatment centers were unsuccessful. Similar efforts to raise the beer tax also have failed, Foster.

Besides considering a tax on alcohol, tobacco and lottery resources, the Governor's Substance Abuse Advisory Council's recommendations include monitoring and enforcing options to prevent doctor shopping, accountability related to prescribing and dispensing prescription drugs, and reviewing options to encourage and support people going from recovery to employment, including those who face job discrimination.

Tomblin commissioned the council in September as a way of addressing the state's drug problem.

Foster said polls show that close to 60 percent of West Virginians would support a tobacco tax increase in some form to support substance-abuse treatment.

"For me, I think it's good policy and a public health tool," said Foster, who is a physician. Raising the cigarette tax a dollar would decrease cigarette usage by 5 or 6 percent, he said.

Statistics about how an increase in the alcohol tax would affect drinking are not clear, but the tax increase would raise revenue, Foster said. Tax proposals on lottery resources have not been outlined.

West Virginia currently taxes tobacco at 55 cents per cigarette pack. There is a 7 percent tax on loose tobacco, as well, according to a spokesman for the state Tax Department. The state collects a tax on lottery winnings, and alcohol also is taxed.

House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, who proposed last year's failed increase in the cigarette tax, said that, eventually, the severity of the state's drug problem will demand a money stream.

"Funding for all parts of substance abuse is going to become such a critical need that we won't be able to walk away from it," said Perdue, a pharmacist. "We will have to find a revenue stream. The likelihood of coming up with another source is remote."

As of 2008, West Virginia had the highest rate of prescription drug overdose deaths in the United States. The number of prescription drug overdoses had surpassed motor vehicle crashes and falls and was the leading cause of accidental death.

Drugs and alcohol account for almost 80 percent of the incarcerations in the state, Perdue said. The number of foster children is growing, due in part to the substance-abuse problem, he said.

"I think we're in real danger of losing an entire generation to substance abuse," he said. "Losing that generation predicts dangers for the following generation, as well, so that's how critical it is."

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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