AUGUSTA, Maine — The assault on tobacco use is resuming on several fronts in the State House, including denying benefits for MaineCare recipients who smoke and restricting smoking in private clubs.
Details of those and other bills are not yet fleshed out, but sponsors say they want to reduce Maine’s smoking rate and drive down taxpayers’ costs of treating tobacco-related illnesses.
Sen. Thomas Saviello said Friday he decided to introduce a bill to keep people receiving MaineCare — the state’s Medicaid program — from receiving benefits at the suggestion of a constituent who also works in a rural health care clinic.
Saviello did not identify the woman but said she’s expected to testify in favor of his bill. He said she’s troubled when she sees MaineCare patients who have respiratory problems and smoke heavily, because taxpayers are subsidizing treatment for illnesses that could be avoided.
Saviello said he’s not sure how much money could be saved by not having to treat smoking-related illnesses, but “I suspect it could be pretty significant.”
Saviello also said he’s not out to punish smokers or tell them how to live their lives. Prospects of the bill are unknown just a few weeks into the session. But regardless of how it fares, Saviello said he wants to raise the point that taxpayers are paying a price in cases such as the one his constituent outlined.
“I’m making a conversation I think needs to take place,” he said.
Rep. Les Fossel of Alna wants to raise the minimum age to possess tobacco from 18 to 21. Fossel, a Republican, said that would address a rising youth smoking rate in Maine that was highlighted earlier this week by the American Lung Association of Maine.
“If you don’t get addicted before you’re 21, you’re apt not to get addicted,” said Fossel, who also sees a connection between youth smoking and the ability of 18-year-olds who are in public schools to get tobacco products.
“How do you get it out of the schools? The answer is to raise the smoking age to 21, and we’ll see if it works,” said Fossel.
Rep. Anna Blodgett, D-Augusta, is sponsoring a bill to bar smoking in private clubs except for enclosed areas.
Current law prohibits smoking in most buildings open to the public, including restaurants and bars. However, private clubs, such as the Elks and American Legion, are not considered “public places” because they’re only open to members and their invited guests, so smoking is allowed if the club so chooses.
Blodgett said the main reason for submitting the bill is that many veterans have health problems and can’t be around smoke but want to be able to be active in club functions.
The lung association is pushing legislation to discourage youth smoking by raising Maine’s cigarette excise tax, now $2 per pack, by $1.50 per pack to a total of $3.50. Supporters say the higher tax is the most effective way to discourage young people from smoking.
Gov. Paul LePage opposes tax increases. As a candidate for governor, he proposed a reduction in the cigarette tax if the state could make up the loss in revenue.
Anti-smoking advocates led by the lung association say Maine has the second-lowest cigarette tax in New England, behind only New Hampshire’s $1.78.