Numbers of students smoking cigarettes plummet in Maine,
Higher tax, education efforts credited
AUGUSTA - A sharp increase in cigarette taxes coupled with targeted and comprehensive public awareness campaigns were credited Tuesday with producing an overall decline of more than 60 percent in smoking rates among Maine students.
Gov. John E. Baldacci said the Maine Youth Risk Behavioral Survey, administered by the Maine Department of Education, concluded smoking among high school students dropped by 59 percent between 1997 and 2005. The comparative reduction grew to 64 percent for middle school pupils surveyed during the same time period.
"In 1997 Maine had the tragic distinction of having one of the highest youth smoking rates in the nation," Baldacci said. "In eight years, Maine has completely turned those numbers around with an overall drop in youth smoking of over 60 percent. As a result, thousands of our children will be spared the diseases and premature death associated with tobacco use."
The survey indicates that smoking rates plunged from 39 percent of high school students in 1997 to about 16 percent now, and from 21 percent of middle school pupils in 1997 to 7 percent.
The dramatic decline was stunning news at the State House where, 12 years ago, a jaded lobbyist once privately suggested the silhouette of a pregnant teen-ager smoking a cigarette when the Department of Transportation was considering new symbols for the Maine license plate. The state's high rate of teen-age pregnancies and cigarette consumption have since plummeted, in part because of education campaigns conducted by the state Bureau of Health and the Department of Education. Dr. Dora Mills, who heads the health bureau, said new statistics indicating where Maine students now rank among smokers nationally were still be being compiled Tuesday.
Maine's effort to decrease smoking among middle school and high school students was acknowledged Tuesday by Jennifer Friedman, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, who said Maine was "setting an example for the nation that leaders in every state should follow."
"Today's results confirm Maine's place as a national leader in fighting tobacco use," Friedman said. "They are proof positive that Maine's tobacco prevention initiatives are working to protect kids from tobacco addiction, save lives and save money by reducing smoking-caused health care costs."
In addition to direct benefits to students who have abandoned cigarette smoking, Baldacci said the state would reap tremendous savings stemming from decreased tobacco use. Emphasizing $554 million was spent last year to treat tobacco-related illnesses that ultimately claimed the lives of 2,200 Mainers, the governor said tobacco companies were continuing efforts to recruit new smokers with plans to inject $74 million into the state next year through smoking advertisements and promotions.
"That's over $200,000 a day spent getting new smokers hooked and keeping current smokers coming back," said Carol Kelly, director of the Maine Coalition on Smoking OR Health.
The state's $14 million anti-smoking publicity blitz and a recent $1 cigarette tax hike that brought the average cost of premium brand cigarettes to nearly $5.20 a pack were cited as primary reasons for quitting smoking or cutting back. The Maine Youth Risk Behavioral Survey measured smokers in terms of whether they had smoked one or more cigarettes in the past 30 days.
Baldacci said the tobacco companies now are targeting the young adult market ages 18 to 34. About one in three - or 34.8 percent - of young adults now smoke.
While the positive benefits of smoking reductions can be measured in health and economic terms, there also could be setbacks to Maine in terms of revenue losses stemming from payments made to states that have settled lawsuits with the tobacco industry. Should cigarette smoking decline nationally, the tobacco companies maintain they have the right to amend payment schedules to reflect those declines. The potential impact of revenue losses is expected to be discussed Monday when the Maine Revenue Forecasting Committee convenes.
"The tobacco industry has recently told us that they're not going to be paying their full share of the tobacco settlement payments this year," Baldacci said. "I know that our attorney general and his office, working together with my office and the Legislature, will be pursuing those payments as we move forward."