CHARLESTON W.Va. (WVDN) – A bill to curb lung disease rates by prohibiting smoking in cars with children under 16 — legislation that some lawmakers have been trying to push for nearly a decade — advanced through Senate Health on Tuesday.
It’s the first time the bill has been considered in the 2024 session and, unlike past years, the first time it has not been double referenced to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it often dies without being brought to an agenda. The bill will now advance to the Senate for a vote by the chamber.
Senate Bill 378 — which has been introduced almost annually by Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, since he joined the Legislature in 2016 — would levy a $25 fine to adults found smoking in cars with children under 16 only when they are already being cited for other traffic violations.
Takubo, a pulmonologist by trade, told committee members Tuesday that he sponsors the bill annually in honor of a patient of his who had never smoked in her life but who only had half her lung function because of exposure to secondhand smoke in the car when she was a child.
The bill passed Senate Health via voice vote, with just one member, Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, not in support. In past years, Azinger has argued that the proposed bill oversteps parental rights, which he said he views as being “sovereign” over children. Azinger, while voting the bill down, did not speak on it during Tuesday’s committee meeting.
With the passage in Senate Health, this will be the first time any version of the bill, either in the Senate or the House (where similar versions have been introduced going back to 2014), has advanced to a full chamber for vote.
Nearly a quarter of West Virginians — the highest rate in the nation, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — report using tobacco products. Lung cancer diagnosis rates here outpace that of every other state. After heart disease, cancer is the leading cause of death in West Virginia, and lung cancer deaths occur more frequently than any other.
As a direct response to those stats, Takubo had another bill up in Senate Health on Tuesday aiming to improve the rates of noninvasive screenings for lung cancer and other diseases.
Senate Bill 514 — which unanimously passed the committee on a voice vote — would create the Lung Cancer Prevention and Education program within the state health department. Using funds from the state’s tobacco tax, it would make $100,000 available annually to be administered by the Bureau for Public Health to cover the cost of certain screenings for some people.
Under the proposed bill, individuals who are at a heightened risk for lung disease — generally people over 50 who have smoked for 20 years or more — and whose income is at or below 300% of the federal poverty level (around $44,000 in 2023) could access the funds. The money would be used to cover low-dose CT scans that, per the American Lung Association, are shown to decrease the rate of lung cancer deaths by 20% when utilized.
“The belief is there’s only about 8% of West Virginians that would fall into this category that they should be getting screenings done but don’t have a way to pay for it,” Takubo said. “This bill says they can go to any hospital in the state of West Virginia if they meet the qualifications and if they don’t have the money — obviously use your insurance if you have it — but if you don’t, the hospital will just do [the CT scan] for you and the state will pay for it.”
West Virginia, per a November report, ranks 25th in the nation for the rate of lung cancer screenings, at 5%. The costs of these tests is generally around $150, Takubo said, while the cost to treat and care for someone with lung cancer is about $250,000.
“This is one of those instances that I believe we can show, in a year or less time, we [could] go from one of the worst states in the country to one of the best states in the country in terms of affecting lung cancer,” Takubo said. “If we just caught one [case of lung cancer], it has paid for itself … In all likelihood, we’re going to catch a lot more.”
This article originally appeared on West Virginia Watch.
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