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Report: Strong local laws don't protect W.Va. from failing grade on tobacco prevention efforts

HUNTINGTON — Despite more than half of West Virginia’s 55 counties receiving top marks, West Virginia as a whole is failing on its efforts to reduce and prevent tobacco use, including e-cigarettes, according to a report released Wednesday by the American Lung Association.

The 18th annual “State of Tobacco Control” report grades states and the federal government on policies proven to prevent and reduce tobacco use. West Virginia received an overall F.

The report grades states on five criteria: funding for state tobacco prevention programs, strength of smoke-free workplace laws, level of state tobacco taxes, coverage and access to services to quit tobacco, and the minimum age of sale for tobacco products to 21.

West Virginia received Fs in all categories except strength of smoke-free workplaces, for which it received a D. The report noted that almost 60% of the state’s population is covered by comprehensive local smoke-free regulations, but because state code is so lax, the state still received a low grade. Cabell County received an A; Wayne a B; and Putnam an F.

The report listed three recommendations for West Virginia lawmakers to improve the state’s grades.

First, the American Lung Association suggests raising tobacco taxes, which they say is one of the most effective ways to reduce tobacco use, including among youth. Multiple studies have shown that every 10% increase in the price of cigarettes reduces consumption by about 4% among adults and about 7% among youth.

“To protect kids from a lifetime of nicotine addiction, the Lung Association in West Virginia encourages West Virginia to increase cigarette taxes by $1 per pack and equalize the tax on other tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, with its cigarette tax. These steps are critical to West Virginia as current tobacco use, including vaping, among youth is 26.6%,” said Sarah Lawver, American Lung Association director of advocacy, West Virginia, in a news release.

A pack of 20 cigarettes is taxed at $1.20 currently. E-cigarettes, or vapes, because they do not contain tobacco, are taxed at 7.5 cents per milliliter sold. Legislators in the House of Delegates have introduced a bill with bipartisan support to raise the tax on vapes to 15 cents per milliliter, with 7.5 cents of every product sold going into a new Young West Virginians Tobacco Cessation Initiative fund. The bill is referred to the House Health and Human Resources Committee.

The American Lung Association also suggests increasing funding for tobacco prevention and programs geared at helping people quit smoking. After depleting the fund a few years ago during tight budget times, the West Virginia Legislature allocated $500,000 for tobacco prevention and cessation last year.

“Despite West Virginia receiving $235.5 million from tobacco settlement payments and tobacco taxes, the state funds tobacco control efforts at only 7.4% of the level recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” Lawver said.

There is bipartisan support on both sides of the Capitol building to increase funding in this area. Del. Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, said last week he wants to see funding to restore Raze, a school-based prevention program, particularly with the rise of vaping.

A report released by the state Department of Health and Human Resources recently found youth vaping has increased 150% in just the past three years. More than 1 in 3, or 35.7%, of West Virginia high school students report current use of e-cigarettes.

“In West Virginia, our tobacco use rates remain among the highest in the nation at 35% among adults and 26.6% among high school students. Sadly, with the youth vaping epidemic still rising, we may have lost an opportunity to make the current generation of kids the first tobacco-free generation,” Lawver said.

Finally, the ALA suggests covering and providing FDA-approved smoking cessation treatments for state residents. While West Virginia has taken steps by covering all FDA-approved tobacco cessation medications, access should also include all three forms of counseling without barriers, such as co-pays and prior authorization.

Increasing the reach of the West Virginia Quitline for tobacco users is also essential, the report states. Rohrbach has also introduced a bill to require all tobacco/vape vendors post the Quitline sign in their business.

One major tool pushed by the ALA in the past was achieved at the end of 2019 when the federal government raised the age requirement to purchase tobacco products to 21. Virtually all adult smokers had their first cigarette before age 21, and most before the age of 18, the lung association said. The association also says states need to take it a step further and ban all flavored products.

Bills have been introduced to raise the age limit to 21, but also prohibit the gifting of tobacco products to anyone under 18.

Man suspected in New Year's Day shooting indicted by federal grand jury

HUNTINGTON — One of “Detroit’s Most Wanted” has been named in a federal indictment regarding a New Year’s Day shooting in downtown Huntington that left seven injured.

The federal indictment charges Kymoni “Money” Desean Davis, 30, with being a felon in possession of ammunition. According to the indictment, Davis possessed 9mm ammunition Jan. 1 in Huntington.

Davis is the suspect in the Kulture Hookah Bar shooting that took place in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day. U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart held a news conference Wednesday with Huntington officials to announce the indictment against Davis, who has not been arrested.

“We are progressing in terms of our investigation into the Kulture Hookah Bar and those terrible events from that night,” Stuart said. “Rest assured, Mr. Davis, you need to turn yourself in. If you know where Mr. Davis is at, then you need to help us bring him in. He’s a fugitive from justice, and we intend for justice to be served.”

At Wednesday’s news conference, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams also backed off previous comments that he was seeking to stop new bars from opening in the city.

The indictment against Davis states he was not allowed to possess ammunition because of several convictions, including the offenses of uttering and publishing, false pretenses with intent to defraud and delivering a check without an account, all in Michigan.

At about 1:45 a.m. New Year’s Day, authorities responded to the call of shots fired in the 1100 block of 4th Avenue, where they found seven victims inside and outside Kulture, many of whom were intoxicated.

Interim Huntington Police Chief Ray Cornwell said Wednesday that police have spoken with dozens of witnesses to the shooting, including several of the victims. They’ve also viewed hours of video surveillance, which helped detectives identify Davis immediately after the shooting.

“The Huntington Police Department is still not commenting on the names, locations or conditions of the victims,” Cornwell said. “This is not the conclusion of this investigation. We are just not able to comment more at this time.”

Huntington authorities have been tight-lipped about the investigation, stating the incident was not a random or targeted act and that it was a result of an argument between individuals. However, Deputy U.S. Marshal Aaron Garcia told WXYZ-TV in Detroit, when identifying Davis as one of “Detroit’s Most Wanted,” that the suspect got into a verbal dispute with a security guard at the bar before he was kicked out. He allegedly returned a short time later and began firing at patrons in the establishment. The bar has remained closed since the shooting occurred.

Stuart said all seven people injured in the shooting have since been treated and released from the hospital, including two victims who were previously described as being in critical condition.

An active Cabell County warrant for Davis filed after the shooting charges him with seven counts of wanton endangerment and seven counts of malicious wounding. He also has active warrants locally for burglary and domestic battery and is wanted for fraud in Illinois with no extradition.

Cabell County Prosecuting Attorney Sean “Corky” Hammers said he will seek indictments against Davis by a county grand jury upon his arrest on those charges, and more charges could follow.

Stuart said anyone with information about Davis’ whereabouts is urged to call police. No one should approach Davis because he is believed to be armed and dangerous, he said.

Williams told reporters Wednesday that the city has since strengthened its vetting process for approving new business licenses within the city, particularly bars.

Kulture’s co-owner, Charon Reese, originally told members of Huntington’s Board of Zoning Appeals that she wanted to open the bar to provide a place for people 25 and older to be together and be away from the college bar crowd. She also said the bar would be a calm location without music blaring on its speakers. However, flyers for the bar advertised the opposite. Officials later discovered Reese had been convicted in 2016 on a federal charge of distributing heroin.

After the shooting, Williams held a news conference and said he was seeking to stop new bars from opening in the city. Williams walked back that statement to reporters Wednesday.

“I was pretty ticked off the day of our press conference. I said we aren’t going to allow any more bars,” Williams said. “I can’t do that. I was mad and I was angry. It’s illegal for us to do that. The one thing we can do is we can make sure honest, responsible, legal, law-abiding business owners have an opportunity to open a business.”

All new bars seeking to open in the city are now required to show an approved liquor license from the West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration before receiving a special permit from the city.

The city had not previously required that, Williams said.

“We have been told we will be the only city in the state of West Virginia that will be doing that,” he said.

All individuals applying for a business license within the city will also be subjected to a criminal background check.

Williams said his previous promotion of former Huntington Police Chief Hank Dial to the role of city manager will help increase communication between city departments and with police. If Dial notices a red flag in the business permit process, he will be in a position to let police know about it, he said.

People with nefarious intentions will no longer be able to give one impression to obtain a business license and then give a different impression to planning and zoning and building inspectors, he said.

For first time in four years, US life expectancy rises

NEW YORK — Life expectancy in the United States is up for the first time in four years.

The increase is small — just a month — but marks at least a temporary halt to a downward trend. The rise is due to lower death rates for cancer and drug overdoses.

“Let’s just hope it continues,” said Robert Anderson, who oversees the report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The latest calculation is for 2018 and factors in current death trends and other issues. On average, an infant born that year is expected to live about 78 years and 8 months, the CDC said.

For males, it’s about 76 years and 2 months; for females, 81 years and 1 month.

For decades, U.S. life expectancy was on the upswing, rising a few months nearly every year. But from 2014 to 2017, it fell slightly or held steady. That was blamed largely on surges in overdose deaths and suicides.

Suicides continued to increase in 2018, as did deaths from the flu and pneumonia during what turned out to be an unusually bad flu year. But declines in some other causes of death — most notably cancer and drug overdoses — were enough to overcome all that, according to the report.

Cancer is the nation’s No. 2 killer, blamed for about 600,000 deaths a year, so even slight changes in the cancer death rate can have a big impact. The rate fell more than 2%, matching the drop in 2017.

“I’m a little surprised that rapid pace is continuing,” said Rebecca Siegel, a researcher for the American Cancer Society.

Most of the improvement is in lung cancer because of fewer smokers and better treatments, she said.

Also striking was the drop in drug overdose deaths that had skyrocketed through 2017. The death rate fell 4% in 2018 and the number of deaths dropped to about 67,400.

Deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers went down; however, deaths from other drugs — fentanyl, cocaine and meth — continued to go up. And preliminary data for the first half of 2019 suggest the overall decline in overdose deaths is already slowing down.

It’s still a crisis, said Katherine Keyes, a Columbia University researcher.

“But the fact that we have seen the first year where there’s not an additional increase is encouraging.”

The national decline was driven by dips in 14 states, the CDC’s Anderson said. Those include states where overdose deaths have been most common, like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia.

In Ohio’s Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, overdose deaths fell in 2018 and preliminary data indicates another drop last year. County health commissioner Tim Ingram credited efforts to try to expand access to treatment and to widely distribute the overdose reversal drug Narcan.

“We almost saturated our community with Narcan,” he said.

Nationally, for all causes of death, more than 2.8 million Americans died in 2018. That’s about 26,000 more than the year before, the CDC report found.

The number went up even as the death rate went down, because the population is growing and a large group are retirement age baby boomers.

Other findings:

  • The 10 leading causes of death remained the same, with heart disease at No. 1. The death rate for heart disease declined slightly, by less than 1%.
  • Death rates also dropped for stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic lower respiratory diseases and unintentional injuries, which includes drug overdoses.
  • Americans who were 65 in 2018 are expected to live another 19 years and six months, on average.
  • The infant mortality rate fell more than 2%, to 1 in 177 births.
  • The suicide death rate hit its highest level since 1941 — about 14 per 100,000. The rate peaked during the Depression in 1932 then mostly declined until 2000. It’s been rising most years since then.

The U.S. has the highest suicide rate of 11 wealthy nations studied, according to a separate report released Thursday by the private Commonwealth Fund. That report also found U.S. life expectancy is two years lower that the average for the 10 other wealthy nations.

Submitted photo  

Ben Cooley and Taylor Bloom (right) star in the touring production of "The Simon & Garfunkel Story," a show that chronicles the career of the iconic 1960s folk duo. The show comes to the Keith Albee Performing Arts Center on Feb. 5.

Agencies perform count of homeless in Wayne, Cabell

HUNTINGTON — A group of more than 50 volunteers began conducting an annual count of the homeless populations in Cabell and Wayne counties Wednesday, going to abandoned homes, shelters and other places on the street where they might be staying.

It was part of the “Point in Time” count, which is a census of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people during a single night in January. The 2020 count began Wednesday and will conclude by 4 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 30, providing a 24-hour snapshot of those experiencing homelessness in the two counties.

Results of the count are then reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which prioritizes funding for programs including emergency shelters, transitional housing, rapid rehousing and permanent housing.

Volunteers with the Cabell-Huntington-Wayne Continuum of Care combed through areas in both counties Wednesday, equipped with information about where to find homeless shelters and domestic violence shelters.

Homeless individuals who participated in the count provided basic demographic information, veteran status and the reason for their most recent episode of homelessness. They were also asked if they experience a substance use disorder, serious mental illness or physical disability.

After the count, a team of Continuum of Care staff will duplicate the data and prepare reports for HUD, said Amanda Coleman, executive director of the Harmony House, the lead agency in the Continuum.

In Huntington, a group of volunteers visited areas near Hal Greer Boulevard, including abandoned houses along 10th Avenue.

Russ Gothan, maintenance director for Harmony House, has been on the point-in-time counts for the past six years. He was leading Wednesday’s team in Huntington, visiting spots that he’s learned over the years.

At any given time, Gothan said there are roughly 200 homeless people living in Huntington, including at shelters and on the street. Many of them on the street suffer from chronic homelessness and from substance abuse problems or mental illness.

“Most of the ones that we find that still live on the street are chronically homeless,” Gothan said. “They’ve been on the street for over a year, most of them two or three years.”

Amanda McComas, executive director of Branches Domestic Violence Shelter, said her agency decided to increase the number of volunteers in 2020 after learning about people who were made homeless following domestic violence situations from the previous year.

“We have five advocates out today helping with the count,” McComas said. “Last year we only had two, so it really made us amp up what we are doing.”

Besides Branches’ 22-bed shelter in Huntington, McComas said they have federal money set aside to help victims of domestic violence get rapidly rehoused.

A final report on homelessness in the area will be released in the spring by the U.S. HUD.

During the 2019 point-in-time count, there were 171 people counted in Cabell and Wayne counties, down from 190 people counted in 2018. That’s fewer than 205 people counted in 2017 and 228 people counted in 2016.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires all agencies receiving Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance grant funding to participate in the count.

The Huntington-Cabell-Wayne Continuum of Care is made up of about 10 agencies that target homelessness and 20 other agencies providing secondary services.