April 25, 2018
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Health advocates want increased tobacco taxes

By Mal Leary, Maine Public

AUGUSTA, Maine — Taxes on tobacco products should be increased to discourage their use, the American Lung Association of Maine urged as it released its annual “report card” on tobacco use in the state.

“Pushing up the cost of tobacco products makes clear sense from a public health perspective,” Mark Ishkanian, president of the association’s board, said at a State House news conference. “The higher the price, the fewer the number of young people that will take up smoking and we know that young people are particularly sensitive to the price of tobacco.”

He said research indicates that for every 10 percent increase in the cost of tobacco products, there is a 7 percent decrease in tobacco use. He said lawmakers should consider raising taxes to further reduce youth smoking and achieve health care savings in the future.

“Every year tobacco is the number one killer in Maine,” Ishkanian said. “This report today shows we are slipping.”

After rating straight A’s for several years, Maine slipped to one A, one B and two C’s this year. State efforts to ban smoking in public places earned the A, the state tax rates were judged B and the state received average grades, C’s, for treatment services and program funding.

“We are proud of what we have accomplished,” said Ed Miller, executive director of the group. “The message to today is one of concern that we not back off our commitment and move back to the days when we had all A’s.”

Maine now taxes a 20-count pack of cigarettes at the rate of $2 a pack. The lung association did not propose any specific rate increase and acknowledged that proposing any tax increase in the recession is difficult.

“Asking for a tax increase is never popular in the State House,” Ishkanian said. “But taxing tobacco products sends exactly the right message.”

The group said one in five Maine adults are smokers, and that the smoking rate among high school students is 14 percent, and among middle school children, the smoking rate is 6 percent.

Gov. John Baldacci said he understands why advocates like the lung association are pushing for a tax increase, but he does not think now is the time to pass any tax hikes.

“For Maine and the country to effectively address this national economic crisis, we must work together in a bipartisan cooperative way,” he said in an interview. “This would be controversial, as it has in the past.”

Baldacci said Maine has done a good job in smoking cessation programs and that even with the lower grades from the lung association; the state is getting the best grades among the New England states.

“We are continuing our programs even in these tough economic times,” the governor said.

Any increase in tobacco taxes is getting a chilly reception among lawmakers, even those that have supported tax increases in past sessions.

House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, is one of those lawmakers who have supported past increases in cigarette taxes and other tobacco taxes, but she is not ready to support an increase this session.

“Right now I don’t have a strong position either way on tobacco taxes,” she said in an interview. “I do think they have done a good job in the state of Maine in reducing consumption, especially among young people.”

Pingree said she believes any tobacco tax increase should go for health-related programs, and not be used simply as a way to raise revenue for state services. She said it is “far too early” in the legislative session to consider whether there are health-related programs in the state that warrant consideration of a tax increase.

Senate GOP leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said he understands that higher taxes have resulted in less use of tobacco products and a reason the lung association would propose an increase. But he opposes raising any taxes this session, and believes most Republican lawmakers agree with him.

“I lost my father to lung cancer and he was a three-pack-a-day smoker for 30 years,” he said in an interview. “This issue strikes home to me. But, I don’t think that this is the time to be looking at increases in taxes; we have done that a number of times before.”

Raye said Maine continues as a leader in smoking cessation efforts even though it’s ranking by the lung association slipped this year and he expects the state will continue to be a leader.

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