RICHMOND, JAN. 30 -- Smokers may go to early graves, but here in tobacco country, so do bills that would discourage smoking.

A proposal to add a 20-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes was dispatched to the Senate Finance Committee's infamous taxation subcommittee today. That was bad news for the bill's sponsor, Sen. Thomas J. Michie Jr. (D-Charlottesville), because there is no such subcommittee.

In choosing the taxation subcommittee, the Senate was exercising a time-honored method of sending an unpopular and politically sensitive bill to Never-Never Land, according to one senator.

By doing so, the panel avoided going on the record as favoring higher taxes or being hard on the tobacco industry.

Michie warned his colleagues that a vote against his proposal, which would have raised $80 million, will be used against them in this fall's election.

In a year in which programs are being cut, Michie said, "The education and health people will be saying, 'Couldn't you do anything for us?' "

Even if his bill passed, Michie said, Virginia would remain "a low tax state" on tobacco. He said that Virginia has one of the lowest tobacco taxes in the country -- 2 1/2 cents a pack -- and that it hasn't been raised since it was imposed in 1960.

Anthony Troy, a lobbyist representing the Tobacco Institute, countered that Michie's proposal was regressive, hitting hardest at the poor, because the smoking rate of people whose annual income is below $10,000 is 46 percent higher than those who make $50,000 or more.

With annual sales of $185 million, tobacco accounts for about one-fourth of the value of all agricultural products in Virginia, which ranks third nationally in the value of its tobacco crop, behind Kentucky and North Carolina.

After hearing about 45 minutes of testimony, Finance Committee Chairman Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), announced that because of "technical questions raised by the staff," the bill would be referred to the taxation subcommittee for further study.

None of Andrews's committee colleagues questioned his decision, even though Andrews acted without consulting them.

A few moments later, Sen. Charles L. Waddell (D-Loudoun) got similar treatment for a bill that would have allowed Loudoun and Prince William counties to impose a local tobacco tax of up to a dime a pack.

Fairfax and Arlington counties already have a nickel-a-pack tax, and some cities in the state tack on as much as 22 cents a pack.

After Andrews's unilateral action, Waddell asked Andrews to identify the members of the subcommittee.

"They know who they are," replied Andrews, who was continuing a tradition established by his legendary predecessor, the late Edward E. Willey, of Richmond.

"Is senator Willey on the subcommittee?" Waddell persisted.

"He is chairman emeritus," answered Andrews.