AUGUSTA – An anti-smoking organization is calling on lawmakers and Gov. Paul LePage to increase the state’s cigarette excise tax by $1.50 per pack.
Thursday’s call for raising the tax to $3.50 per pack came as the American Lung Association released its annual tobacco report card. Maine’s tax of $2 per pack tied for 10th highest in the country in 2010, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Maine’s state cigarette tax — one of four categories evaluated in the report card — is the second lowest in New England. Only New Hampshire’s, at $1.78 per pack, is lower.
The federal tobacco tax is $1.01.
“Keeping the price high is the most effective strategy to reduce youth smoking,” said Edward Miller, senior vice president for public policy at the American Lung Association of Maine. “We have 25 years of evidence.”
Each time state and federal cigarette taxes have increased in the past 25 years, association data show, the number of cigarette packs sold per capita has fallen.
The most recent data suggest youth smoking in Maine increased in 2009, according to the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“There’s significant evidence that this is the most effective way of turning it around,” Miller said at a State House press conference. Teenage smokers are in the age group most sensitive to a price increase, he said.
After more than a decade of declines since the 1990s, when Maine’s youth smoking rate hovered near 40 percent, the rate crept back up from 14 percent in 2007 to 18.1 percent in 2009.
In calling for a cigarette tax increase, the American Lung Association is likely fighting an uphill battle. Maine lawmakers haven’t approved a tobacco tax increase since 2005, when the tax doubled from $1 to $2 per pack.
Former Gov. John Baldacci was rebuffed when he tried to push through another $1 increase in 2007, and he resisted calls to propose another increase later in his administration.
A spokeswoman for LePage said Thursday it was too early for the administration to take a stance on the cigarette tax. LePage said during the gubernatorial campaign that he would oppose an increase in the state’s tobacco tax.
LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said in October 2010 that LePage would consider reducing the cigarette tax if the state could absorb the revenue loss.
“All of us would love to see teen use of tobacco reduced,” said Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, chairman of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee.
But an increased cigarette tax isn’t the way to achieve that, he said.
“When you raise a tax like this, the people who we hit the hardest are the poorest,” Trahan said. “Sometimes, you’re taking food out of their children’s mouths.”
Miller said resistance to a cigarette tax increase isn’t surprising.
“Traditionally, raising the cigarette tax is not something that enjoys a lot of support early on in the session,” he said.
Miller said the American Lung Association could settle for a 75-cent increase. That increase would still have an impact on smoking rates, he said.