AUGUSTA – The American Lung Association of the Northeast is calling for a $1.50-per-pack increase in Maine’s cigarette tax, which supporters say would raise an additional $50 million that could help to fund the state’s growing Medicaid budget.

Pushing the price of cigarettes to about $8 per pack also would inspire smokers to quit and deter others from picking up the unhealthy habit, anti-tobacco advocates said Wednesday.

Maine lawmakers last increased the cigarette tax in 2005, from $1 to $2 per pack. That increase was followed in 2007 by the last significant decrease in the number of young smokers in Maine, said Ed Miller, the association’s spokesman.

Since then, the smoking rate among Maine high school students has hovered around 15 percent, down from 40 percent in 1997, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.

“We’ve really stalled and we need to get the rate moving downward again,” Miller said. “The best way to do that is with a significant increase in the cigarette tax.”

Studies have shown that every 10 percent increase in the retail price of cigarettes causes a 6 to 7 percent decrease in the youth smoking rate, Miller said.

The state collected $130 million in cigarette taxes in fiscal 2011-12, he said.

The association has been pushing for an increase for several years, Miller said, noting that most other states in the Northeast have higher taxes, led by New York at $4.35 per pack. Even New Hampshire is closing in on Maine, with a tax of $1.68 per pack, he said.

Wednesday’s announcement at the State House coincided with a new report card from the association that gave Maine a “thumbs down” for cutting $1.8 million from tobacco prevention and cessation programs in the fiscal year that will end June 30.

The association also criticized Maine lawmakers for eliminating about $400,000 in state Medicaid funding for coverage of smoking cessation medications unless a recipient is pregnant. The reduction was part of an overall effort to cut any Medicaid spending that wasn’t federally required, Miller said.

Overall, Maine spent $9.3 million on smoking prevention and cessation programs in this fiscal year, including $1.8 million in federal funding, the association reported. That’s about half of the $18.5 million spending level recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The association called on Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature to make anti-smoking programs a bigger priority, as they were in fiscal 2008-09, when spending peaked at $10.8 million and the association gave Maine an A grade for its efforts.

In particular, the association recommended that Maine lawmakers protect the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which was intended to use more than $50 million in annual tobacco industry settlement payments for a variety of public health and prevention programs, including anti-smoking education and support efforts.

The governor’s office didn’t respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the association’s goals.

House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, issued a written statement regarding the proposed cigarette tax increase:

“The Democrats’ run to raise taxes on everything from meals to lodging to cigarettes is irresponsible without first looking at the expenditure and efficiency side of government.”

Rep. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham, a retired physician who serves on the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said she supports the association’s call to increase the cigarette tax and protect the Fund for a Healthy Maine.

“Every time we raise the tax, we see a corresponding decrease in the smoking rate,” Sanborn said. “And every dollar we spend on prevention saves us $7 down the road on treatment for illness.”

Sanborn said she is concerned that the state has increasingly used the Fund for a Healthy Maine for purposes other than public health and prevention programs.

“These programs pay for themselves,” she said. “Reducing spending on prevention efforts is unwise because it leads to increased health-care costs in the future.”

The state’s anti-smoking spending from the Fund for a Healthy Maine dropped from $9.3 million in fiscal 2011-12 to $7.5 million this year, according to the association.

In that period, Maine lawmakers more than doubled the amount of the fund that was used to cover Medicaid costs — from $8 million in fiscal 2011-12 to $18 million in 2012-13, according to the Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review.

The governor’s proposed budget for the next two fiscal years would eliminate funding for programs that help seniors buy medicine; gut property-tax relief; and suspend revenue sharing with cities and towns.

The lung association is reviewing the proposal to determine the potential impact on anti-smoking spending, Miller said.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com