Maine’s teen smoking rate has rebounded after a dramatic 10-year decline, and no one is sure why.

State officials hope to put a quick end to the rebound, however, with the help of a federally funded crackdown on illegal cigarette sales and new regulations on tobacco companies.

“We’ve got more work to do,” said John Archard, tobacco enforcement coordinator for the Maine Attorney General’s Office. Last week, Maine became one of the first states to receive a one-year, $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The money will help expand Archard’s inspections and enforcement division to make sure Maine’s retail stores are not selling to customers under the age of 18. Maine’s beefed-up inspection staff also will be checking to make sure tobacco companies comply with a list of federal marketing and labeling limits that take effect Tuesday.

Health advocates say fighting teen smoking has to remain a top priority.

Eighty-five percent of people who start smoking before age 19 become lifelong smokers and far more likely to die prematurely from heart or lung disease. Tobacco use leads to hundreds of millions of dollars a year in health care costs in Maine alone, according to the state.

Maine had one of the nation’s highest teen smoking rates in 1997 — 39 percent. But, after a decade of spending millions of dollars on anti-smoking education, cracking down on stores that sold to minors and raising taxes on cigarettes, the state’s rate dropped below the national average to just 14 percent in 2007, a 64 percent decline.

“Maine has been a real success story nationally over the years,” said Danny McGouldrick, vice president for research at the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, a national anti-smoking group. “We’ve seen Maine go from one of the states with the highest rates to one of the states with the lowest rates These are lifesaving measures that Maine has put in place.”

However, Maine’s teen smoking rate jumped back up to 18.1 percent last year, a 28 percent jump from 2007, according to federal data published this month. It is still below the national average — 19.5 percent — which remained about the same in the past two years.

There are theories, but no solid explanations yet, about why more Maine teenagers appear to be smoking again.

Tough economic times and stress may be partly to blame, some speculate. It also may be that a new generation of teenagers is more accepting of high cigarette prices — now at least $5 for a pack of 20 — because they didn’t experience the tax increases that smokers did during the past decade.

“When you get a new cohort of kids who grow up with a given price, they’re used it,” Archard said. “That’s one theory.”

Maine officials don’t blame any decline in anti-smoking budgets for the change.

Unlike some other states that have cut back on anti-smoking programs, Maine has maintained the Partnership for a Tobacco-Free Maine program at about $11 million a year in federal and state funding, said Dorean Maines, director of the state program. More than half of that annual funding goes to community grants, and the rest pays for training, education and enforcement.

At least some of the smoking rate increase could be because of changes in the state’s data collection, which included a larger sampling of high schools than in past years and may have captured a more rural teen population, said Maines.

“We haven’t done enough analysis to know exactly what happened,” she said. “There was a difference in sampling and methodology.”

Whatever the cause, officials are eager to push the rate back down again.

“It’s disappointing to us as a program, but we’ve also tried to remind people that you can never let up,” Maines said. Tobacco companies keep selling cigarettes, and new kids keep coming along to smoke them, she said. “We can’t ever think our work is done.”

The new enforcement sweep may help.

Maine spends about $200,000 a year to conduct random checks of retailers to make sure they aren’t selling cigarettes to customers younger than 18, which is against state and federal law. The inspections typically involve sending in a teenager to ask for cigarettes.

While it also is illegal for someone younger than 18 to possess cigarettes, the state leaves the handling of possession violations to local police departments, and enforcement is rare.

The $750,000 federal enforcement grant awarded last week is intended to help fund the inspection of every one of Maine’s licensed cigarette retailers. Future grants may pay for annual inspections, state officials said.

“Our retailers have been pretty good over the years,” Archard said. “We’ve maintained a violation rate of under 10 percent for the last 13 years, but we haven’t been able to really change that much in that time. We’re hoping to drive that down even lower. The ultimate goal is to get that teen smoking rate back down.”

Officials said they know teenagers are resourceful and can find ways to get cigarettes even if the stores won’t sell to them. But enforcement is one key piece of the puzzle, they said, and new federal rules on marketing and packaging also may help.

Candy- and fruit-flavored cigarettes have been illegal since last fall, for example. And, as of Tuesday, manufacturers can no longer have labels promoting “light” or “low-tar” cigarettes, among other new marketing rules.

Archard’s inspectors will be checking for violations of those rules, too.

Some young smokers are doubtful that the crackdown will keep tobacco away from kids.

Katelyn McKay, a 17-year-old from Westbrook, said she doesn’t have any trouble buying cigarettes. “They think I’m over 18 and I say, ‘I don’t have an ID,’” she said.

And, if she’s unable to get them herself, there are lots of friends who can, she said.

McKay also doesn’t think marketing and labeling rules will discourage kids from smoking. She started when she was in sixth grade and it seemed like everyone else was smoking, too, she said.

“I moved from California to Maine, and I wanted to fit in.”

Joe Richards, a 27-year-old Portland resident, said kids will find a way to get cigarettes.

“Every time I go into a smoke shop, there are three or four teenagers outside asking me to get them cigarettes,” he said.

Richards, who started smoking when he was 16, said he refuses to help other kids get addicted.

“I’m never going to quit. I can’t,” he said. “My sister is 10 years old, and I tell her, ‘Never start smoking.’” 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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