Progress Up in Smoke?

Posted March 04, 2010, at 6:52 p.m.

For the first time in more than a decade, Maine’s youth smoking rate has gone up, according to a statewide survey. Anti-smoking advocates make a persuasive case that raising the cigarette tax would stop this trend. Lawmakers must be persuaded that a one-year increase is a trend and they must be committed to using the extra tax revenue — $26 million — for smoking cessation, not to help fill the state’s budget gap before they consider raising the tobacco tax.

In 1996, Maine has one of the highest teen smoking rates in the country when 39 percent of high school students said they were smokers. Through a variety of steps, the rate was cut by more than half to 14 percent.

But, between 2007 and 2008, the rate crept back up to 18 percent, according to data from the Maine Youth Behavioral Risk Survey, a behavior questionnaire distributed every other year to public school students in grades nine through 12. The survey was changed to include a larger sample in 2008 and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention cautions that it has not interpreted the 2008 data yet. This makes it unclear that the increase constitutes a trend.

Despite this caveat, there are good reasons to ensure the youth smoking rate doesn’t creep back up.

According to Health Policy Partners, one of every three kids who smoke regularly will die early. Many more will experience lasting health problems.

Maine spends more than $600 million a year on health care related to smoking, and $534 million is lost in productivity due to smoking, according to the national Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. The group says that a $1 increase in the state’s tobacco tax would decrease youth smoking by 11 percent, preventing 8,500 Maine kids from becoming smokers.

Youth are especially sensitive to price increases because they have limited financial resources. As the price of a pack of cigarettes steadily increased in Maine from $3.53 in 2001 to $5.28 in 2007, the rate of youth smoking dropped from nearly 25 percent to 14 percent.

Maine last increased its tax — from $1 to $2 per pack — in 2005. Since then, other states have raised their taxes, so Maine’s are now the second lowest in the Northeast. Rhode Island’s is the highest, taxed at $3.46 per pack.

A $1 per pack state tax increase would generate more than $26 million in revenue. Raising the tobacco tax to help plug the state’s large budget hole is the wrong reason to consider such a hike.

Financial pressure is only one of the tools the state has successfully used to reduce its youth and adult smoking rates. Maine has set aside much of the money it received from a national tobacco settlement for smoking prevention. Most states used the money for other purposes, mostly balancing their books during tough economic times.

The state has also expanded smoking bans to cover restaurants and bars and state-owned beaches.

A tax increase could again be part of this successful multifaceted approach.

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