During this legislative session much attention was appropriately focused on the state’s response to the global pandemic, but it seems most legislators have forgotten about the youth tobacco epidemic raging in our own backyard. In March 2020, which seems a lifetime ago, we were optimis
tic – lawmakers were actively considering policy solutions to address Maine’s tobacco use rates – including e-cigarettes – among high school students which was above the national average. Since then, we’ve seen a total reversal of course.
Lawmakers ended this legislative session by turning their backs on kids across our state despite ample opportunity to address this major public health crisis that is impacting our youth.
The best words to describe the legislative response to the tobacco epidemic over the last seven months is “missed opportunities” – and that’s plural. They failed to pass legislation preventing the sale of flavored tobacco products in Maine. They were unable to pass a lifesaving increase on tobacco taxes but they did act to slash the funding for proven, evidence-based tobacco control programs by $5 million, equivalent to more than one third of the program’s annual budget.
For decades, public health organizations have worked side by side, addressing tobacco prevention in Maine and the nation. These groups include the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association. As public policy experts with these organizations, we are appalled by the shortsightedness of Maine lawmakers’ inaction on tobacco control policy. More so, as parents of school-aged children, this is personal: when it comes to protecting kids from tobacco related death and disease, we risk leaving an entire generation behind.
Indeed, our state was once seen as a leader in the nation on this matter. In the late 1990’s when Maine had one of the highest national youth tobacco use rate our leaders came together to take aggressive actions to address the problem — and we were successful. By 2005, Maine was ranked by the American Lung Association as top in the nation in efforts to address tobacco addiction. Just 15 years later, that same report shows Maine’s grades have dropped substantially with three A’s, a C and an F. a.
Decades of research and advocacy has taught us a lot.
We know a well-funded prevention program is the cornerstone of a state’s effort to reduce tobacco use. A reduction in funding is completely unacceptable when 1 in 3 Maine High School students are using tobacco products and nearly 1 in 5 Maine adults smoke cigarettes. It is appalling that, with revenues more than stable and significant funding from the federal recovery packages flowing into the state, legislators failed to adequately fund Maine’s tobacco program.
We also know tobacco tax increases save lives. Unfortunately, during this legislative session lawmakers punted on the opportunity to increase the cigarette tax. It was last increased in 2005 and Maine had the highest tax in the northeast. After sixteen years of inaction we have fallen to the second lowest in the region – ranking among tobacco belt states and far below most of the Northeast.
Over the past decade, electronic cigarettes have gone largely unchecked by both state and federal governments. While policymakers were asleep at the switch, the tobacco industry was not. During this time, the gains made in reducing youth tobacco use of the early 2000’s have been erased. The industry is using its proven tactics of luring kids through flavored tobacco products and targeted advertising to hook the next generation of customers to tobacco and nicotine. Lawmakers must act before it’s too late to protect Maine kids from tobacco related death and disease.
Over the last 18 months we have seen more attention on lung health – however, the Maine Legislature overlooked opportunities to enact meaningful policies to advance public health and reduce the burden of tobacco-related cancer, heart and lung diseases. Our organizations remain committed to Maine youth and urge the legislature to enact the above mentioned evidenced-based policies to reduce the burden of tobacco in our state and live up to the Dirgo motto making Maine a leader in tobacco prevention.
To join us in this fight, sign up to be a part of our You’re the Cure Network and urge your local lawmakers to protect Maine kids.