Maine’s efforts to prevent retailers from selling cigarettes to minors appear to be paying off, with a federal report released Tuesday showing the state tied for first in the country at keeping people younger than 18 from buying tobacco.

Public health officials say they believe the efforts to keep cigarettes away from minors will reduce statewide smoking rates in future years.

“We are so proud of what we do,” said Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “But the ads put out by the smoking industry combat us every day.”

At 22.8 percent, the smoking rate for Mainers who are 18 or older is higher than the national average of 20 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, fewer high school students in Maine smoke – 16.2 percent compared with 18.1 percent nationwide.

Part of the reason may be that it has become extremely difficult for anyone younger than the legal age of 18 to buy cigarettes in Maine.

According to the 2012 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report, released Tuesday, only 1.8 percent of attempts by minors who were sent into stores to buy cigarettes succeeded. Nationally, 9.1 percent of such attempts were successful.

Maine and Mississippi tied as the most effective states in preventing tobacco sales to minors.

In 1997, when record-keeping began, Maine retailers sold tobacco illegally in 16.7 percent of the attempts. Nationally, the rate that year was 40 percent.

Maine’s tough laws, enforcement and public education programs enable it to keep tobacco out of the hands of minors, said Susan Marsiglia Gray, the federal agency’s national coordinator of the effort.

Gray said Maine has stiffer penalties than most states, including suspension of a store’s license to sell tobacco and fines against store owners and sales clerks.

Maine also bans sales of flavored cigars, which have become popular with young smokers, Gray said.

She said Maine is committed to enforcement and deploys a strong public education program.

The state’s “No Buts!” campaign to prevent purchases by minors includes visits to stores by volunteers with Healthy Maine Partnerships, a collaborative effort of state agencies, hospitals, schools and businesses. Stores are given kits with instructions for ensuring that no cigarettes are sold to minors.

The personal touch helps get business owners on board with the program, Pinette said, and “No Buts!” anti-smoking posters send a message to would-be buyers who are younger than 18.

“Just having the posters up is a deterrent, because the teens know that they’ll get carded,” Pinette said.

The state also promotes an incentive program, in which “Star Stores” are recognized for extra efforts to prevent teenagers from picking up the habit.

John Garfield, who refuses to advertise cigarettes at his Garfield’s News store at York Beach, earned the Star Store designation, one of 13 in the state.

“I don’t like selling cigarettes,” said Garfield, a non-smoker who expects he would have a hard time staying in business if he stopped selling them. “I don’t like to see kids start smoking.”

Garfield said even though he’s uncomfortable selling cigarettes, he feels good about his modest stance against the tobacco industry’s efforts to “shove smoking down our throats.”

Preventing youths from picking up the habit is crucial because studies show that most adults who smoke started as teenagers, said Sarah Mayberry, director of the Breathe Easy Coalition of Maine, which promotes smoke-free policies.

“I think most retailers don’t want to be selling to minors, and the (No Buts!) program works to reinforce that,” she said.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

jlawlor@pressherald.com

Twitter: @joelawlorph