The teen smoking rate in Maine, long on the decline, is now on the increase. So, cheers to Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, for reversing himself last week on his proposal to prevent smokers from receiving MaineCare benefits.
Saviello dropped support for his bill after learning it was unconstitutional to dictate behavior of public health clients, despite our keen desire to do so. An equally compelling reason to oppose any such move is that dropping smoking cessation awareness and basic medical care is inhumane.
Ever see someone succumb to lung cancer? Emphysema?
Both are ridiculously cruel ways to die.
The top five killers in this country — heart disease, stroke, respiratory cancers, respiratory infections and pulmonary disease — are frequently linked to direct and indirect smoking, and all are exceedingly expensive to treat.
The most cost-effective way to deal with these diseases is to prevent people from starting to smoke in the first place through awareness campaigns, or getting them to cease smoking before decades of damage is done.
Do we spend a lot of public money to treat smoking-related diseases? We certainly do, because smoking has such a stranglehold in Maine. But dropping these patients — the chronically ill to the terminally ill — from MaineCare will push expensive treatment costs to local hospitals, and then on to private insurance holders.
So, no matter how you look at it, the public pays for prevention and care, so we might as well choose prevention because it is — quite simply — cheaper.
Saviello, who had proposed his no-MaineCare bill at the start of the session, was widely criticized by health advocates in the public and private sectors for the move. Meeting with opponents early last week, Saviello reversed himself, and then did much more.
He amended his bill to promote smoking awareness and focus on ways to reduce smoking among MaineCare recipients. Making that work will require a joint effort of multiple public health agencies, including the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Partnership for a Tobacco-Free Maine.
And, in order to pay for this cost-saving awareness and really bring focus to the chronic health costs and conditions associated with smoking, Maine must preserve the Fund for a Healthy Maine — which is Maine’s share of the nation’s tobacco settlement money paid since 1999.
There is talk of raiding or dissolving that fund to meet general budget obligations, but that would be a mistake. The cheapest, most efficient and most humane thing for us to do is to prevent people from smoking in the first place, not wait to treat smoking-related diseases once they take hold.
In 1995, an estimated 36 percent of high school students in Maine were smokers. By 2007, that rate had dropped to 14 percent, which is an astounding success. In 2009, the rate had climbed to 18.1 percent and appears to be continuing its incremental climb.
That upward trend must be stopped. The resulting diseases are too expensive to treat, too awful to live with and often too dreadful to survive.
This Friday, the Appropriations Committee will hear a proposal to raid the Fund for a Healthy Maine to help reduce general debt. Using any money in that fund for anything other than preventing, controlling and treating smoking-related diseases would be an ethical and financial mistake on a grand and deadly scale.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.