After more than a decade of decline, Maine’s teen smoking rate is on the rise. That is cause for concern — and more investigation to find out what’s behind the upswing and what is the most effective way to reverse it. These efforts will be helped by a $750,000 federal grant that the state received earlier this month.
In 1997, Maine had 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 — including increases in the state’s tobacco tax, millions spent on anti-smoking education and tougher laws against selling cigarettes to minors — the rate dropped by 14 percent in 2007.
Then it jumped to 18 percent, according to data from the Maine Youth Behavioral Risk Survey. The survey was changed to include a larger sample in 2008. The survey that year included more high schools, including in more rural areas, so this could explain some of the jump in smoking rates.
State officials also say a new generation of teens may be more accepting of higher cigarette prices because they didn’t experience a time when a pack sold for less before taxes were raised. Maine last increased its tax — from $1 to $2 a pack — in 2005. Between 2001 and 2007, when the average price of a pack of cigarettes went from $3.53 to $5.28, Maine’s teen smoking rate dropped from 25 percent to 14 percent.
On the other hand, others speculate that the economic hard times — and the accompanying stress — could account for more teen smoking.
It would be good to know the reason behind the rise in smoking rates so that anti-smoking efforts carry the most effective message. Maine currently spends about $11 million a year in federal and state money on smoking prevention and cessation. Unlike many other states that have used the money — much of it from tobacco companies as part of a national settlement — to balance their budgets or to fund other programs, Maine has remained committed to earmarking funds for tobacco-related work.
Reducing youth smoking is important for health and economic reasons.
Eighty-five percent of people who begin smoking before the age of 19 become lifelong smokers, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Maine, more than $600 million is spent annually on health care expenditures to treat tobacco-related illnesses and more than $530 million is lost in productivity because of smoking, according to the national Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.
Maine is one of the first states to receive a competitive grant from the Food and Drug Administration to increase the enforcement of state and federal tobacco laws. Under the contract administered by the Maine Office of the Attorney General, the state Department of Health and Human Services will receive more than $750,000 to increase enforcement of federal and state tobacco laws.
This, and a closer look at which prevention efforts work, could help reverse this troubling trend.