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Richmond snuffs cigarette tax after teachers plead for school funds

RICHMOND, Va. -- In a 6-3 vote, Richmond City Council struck down a proposal Monday evening that would have imposed an 80-cent per pack cigarette tax in Richmond.

The cigarette tax was proposed by City Councilman Parker Agelasto (5th District), who said the increase would raise an additional $5 million annually. That money, he said, could be put toward funding school maintenance.

Agelasto, Kristen Larson, and Chris Hilbert voted in favor of the cigarette tax proposal.

The vote to kill the cigarette tax came after an emotional debate from people who stood on both sides of the issue.

Several people who opposed the tax wore red t-shirts in a sign of solidarity. They argued the tax unfairly targeted small business owners.

Convenience store owner Omar Inayat tearfully explained to council that the tax would have cut his revenues by at least 40 percent. That, he said, would force him out of business.

"I'm asking everyone of you, where will we go if I lose my business? I have nothing else to do," Inayat said.

Businesses owners argued that customers would drive to nearby Chesterfield County, where there is no cigarette tax.

Richmond-based tobacco corporations, including Altria and Universal also argued against the tax.

"The $17 million Richmond collects from the property taxes and machine and tool taxes from PM USA, is greater than what any other city in Virginia collects through a cigarette tax," argued Altria employee Tonya Clark.

Cigarette tax supporters, including school leaders, teachers, parents, and health advocates, said the tax would have been a lifeline for schools in dire need of repair.

The Richmond School Board said it needed $33 million for school maintenance in this year's budget, yet the mayor's budget only allocated $1.5 million.

"I have 11-year-old children in their coats buttoned up to their chins," argued one Richmond teacher.

Several health advocates also pointed out the dangers of smoking and the negative impact the tobacco industry has on children.

"Tobacco is the #1 preventable cause of death and disability, particularly in my world of cardiology," argued Richmond physician Carolyn Burns.

New York City imposes a $1.50 per pack cigarette tax on smokers.

In Norfolk, Virginia, the tax is 85 cents per pack.

Under Virginia law, only cities, towns, and several counties in Northern Virginia have the power to levy a cigarette tax on smokers.