One of the pieces of legislation that generated much attention in the media and elsewhere, at the end of this past session, was LD 1170, “An Act To Reduce Youth Access to Tobacco Products”, which raised the age in which individuals can purchase tobacco products in the State of Maine to 21. The bill only restricted the purchase, not the use, of tobacco products, but the overall intent is to discourage smoking altogether. This bill was passed by the Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage. On Aug. 2, “Veto Day,” the Legislature overrode the governor’s veto.

Much criticism has been rendered by the governor, and others, towards those of us who supported the bill, claiming that if we allow individuals who are 18 to serve in the military, get married and to vote, we should trust them to decide whether to purchase tobacco products or not.

While it is correct that we treat 18-year-olds as adults for those purposes, and others, none of those activities, with the potential exception of military service, has the long-term negative impacts on their lives, and a significant cost to society, than a life-time of smoking will have. 

Maine, like many other states, has a legislative history of distinguishing which activities are allowed at age 18, while deferring others until age 21. Back in the 1970s I was witness to the lowering of the drinking age to 18. That experiment was a disaster as many high school age Mainer’s died as a result of easy access to alcohol and drinking and driving fatalities. I saw alcohol being consumed while in school, at athletic events and school dances. While I know very well that those under 21 still get and consume alcohol, illegally, I would not support an effort to reverse that age requirement for all the reasons mentioned.  Maine, like many other states, raised the age back to 21, a wise public policy decision!

During the debate on this bill I heard from 27 constituents, 25 were supportive of the bill, with many of them associated with either the medical profession or the education system and two, who opposed the bill, were in the retail sales business which sells tobacco products. While I appreciate both sides of this argument, I want to share my reasons for supporting this bill even though it falls short of the intended goal of curtailing smoking altogether.

According to the “Tobacco Free Maine” website, this past year over 7,100 Maine high school students were using some sort of tobacco product. That is 11.2 percent of our high school students, well above the national average of 8 percent. Approximately 700 high school students become daily smokers each year here in Maine. With the average annual cost for a smoker in Maine, at a pack a day, over $3,000, that money would be better used by these young adults to further their education. It would pay for almost an entire year at York County Community College. A far better lifetime investment!

As a state, Maine currently has 19.5 percent of our adult population who are daily smokers, with 29 percent of all cancer deaths in this state tied directly to smoking related illnesses. In Maine we spend approximately $811 million annually on smoking related illnesses, with Medicaid paying over $260 million annually. A billion dollars per year in smoking related health care costs in Maine alone. Each year 2,400 Maine residents die from smoking related illnesses and of the young adults that start smoking today, 27,000 will die premature deaths. These health care related costs place an annual state and federal tax burden of $1,113 on every household in Maine, not to mention the huge human costs.

I suspect there will be attempts to repeal this law during the next session. If there is a better alternative to reversing the smoking rates of all our residents, I will gladly listen. I have seen firsthand the toll a lifetime of smoking can have on an individual and all too often they say the same thing, “I wish they had never started in the first place!” Smoking addiction is taking too many lives at a terrible personal and societal cost. To ignore these facts, and remain silent, was not an option for me.

— State Rep. Robert Foley, R-Wells, represents House District 7, which includes part of Wells.

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