May 24, 2018
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Maine’s Tobacco Campaign

After a dramatic 10-year drop, the smoking rate among Maine high school students showed a slight increase last year. And our state’s anti-tobacco program got a mild rap across the knuckles recently from the national Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. But Maine’s public health director, Dora Anne Mills, has a persuasive response, and the campaign is on track.

First, the bad news: The latest survey shows an uptick in smoking by Maine high school students. The figure had dropped dramatically from 39 percent in 1997 to 14 percent in 2007. In 2009, it went back up to 18 percent. And the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids dropped Maine’s ranking to seventh among the 50 states in funding for smoking prevention. Maine ranked first in 2007. Worse, the president of the national organization, Matthew L. Myers, said, “Maine has been a leader in the fight against tobacco, but the state now spends barely half of what the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommends for tobacco prevention programs.”

Dr. Mills, in an interview, described the increase in high school smoking as only borderline statistically significant but still a warning sign. She had no quarrel with the report’s figures but explained that some of the funds can and should be used to combat childhood obesity. A better measure of progress might be the reduction in cigarette packs per capita sold in Maine — from 101 in 1997 down to 55 in 2008 and 52 in 2009. She recalled Maine’s dramatic reduction in smoking by adults as well as high school students but said it had been reaching the low-hanging fruit.

Remaining smokers include hard cases, such as low-income Mainers, where one in three pregnant women smoke, compared to one in 20 generally. She said 40 percent of Maine’s Native Americans smoke and gays and lesbians also have a high rate. And it is hard to persuade children not to smoke if their parents do. She said the Maine campaign is now tackling such challenges.

The report by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids softened its criticism of Maine’s program by explaining that the slight budget reduction reflects partly a decrease in settlement payments from the tobacco companies and the fact that Maine now distinguishes between funds specifically spent on tobacco control and funds involving tobacco-related chronic diseases.

The upshot of all this is that Maine is still among the leaders in a new and difficult phase of the campaign against tobacco. Progress was dramatic since the 1990s, but there’s a recent stall nationally, partly because of the hard cases and possibly because financial hardship can cause former smokers to backslide.

A few more figures are worth considering. The number of Maine’s youth who become new daily smokers each year: 1,600. Maine deaths caused by smoking each year: 2,200. And the ratio of tobacco company marketing in Maine to total spending on tobacco prevention: 6 to 1.

Finally, federal subsidy to the tobacco industry in 2009: $202,918,426.

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