Plan would give Maine highest tobacco tax

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LEWISTON -Standing behind a counter with Zippo lighters on display and a sign overhead displaying cigarette specials, Tonya Medlen didn’t mince words about Gov. John Baldacci’s proposal to raise taxes on cigarettes.

The Democratic governor’s plan to raise the state tobacco tax by another dollar – to $3 per pack – would raise $130 million over the next two years.

“I think he’s whacked,” Medlen said while ringing up sales at Victor News. “Our cigarettes just went up, and he wants to raise them again?”

Maine smokers can’t help feeling that they’re under assault. The state outlawed smoking in the few public places where it was allowed – bars and pool halls – in 2004. A year later, the tobacco tax was increased by a dollar per pack.

Now Baldacci wants to raise the tax again.

If the new increase is approved, the state tax would grow to $3 on July 1. That would be the highest in the nation among states.

New Jersey currently has the highest state tax at $2.58 per pack. A couple of places are as high or even higher when state and local taxes are included. New York’s combined tax is $3 per pack and in Chicago it’s $3.66, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Those figures don’t include the federal tax of 39 cents per pack.

Health officials like Baldacci’s proposal, which is accompanied by a $1 million increase in funding for smoking cessation programs.

“Raising tobacco taxes is one of the most effective statewide public health strategies,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, the state’s top health officer. “People do tend to cut down or quit in response to the increase in price.”

Even at $3, the state tax would not come close to covering the $7 in direct health care costs associated with each pack sold, not to mention the human toll of 2,400 premature deaths each year in the state, Mills said from Augusta.

“The size of a small town in Maine is dying too early because of tobacco and many more thousands of Mainers suffer from chronic disease,” she said.

Ed Miller, executive director of the Maine Lung Association, said the previous $1-per-pack tax increase led to many Mainers deciding to quit.

In 2005, 6.6 percent of Maine’s 210,000 adult smokers were assisted in quitting by the Center for Tobacco Independence, which operates a health line, said Dr. Susan Swartz, the director. That compared to 3.4 percent the previous year, she said.

“There was a large percentage of smokers who took advantage of that tax increase to say, ‘That’s it. I’m done,”‘ Miller said.

Maine isn’t alone in trying to increase tobacco taxes. There are efforts afoot in at least a half-dozen other states to raise taxes this year.

-Iowa Gov. Chet Culver wants to raise the cigarette tax by $1 per pack.

-Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski wants to raise the tax by 84 cents.

-South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford wants to raise the tax by 30 cents.

-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels wants to raise the tax by at least 25 cents.

-Maryland health activists want to raise the tax by $1 per pack.

-Mississippi lawmakers will again consider increasing tax despite vetoes last year.

South Carolina’s state cigarette tax of 7 cents is currently the nation’s lowest, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Other low state tax rates are 17 cents per pack in Missouri, 18 cents in Mississippi and 20 cents in Tennessee.

In Maine, some worry that higher taxes will simply send more people to the Internet for mail-order cigarettes. Or smokers could simply cross the border into New Hampshire, where the state tax is 80 cents per pack.

Mills isn’t overly concerned. The high cost of gas would likely offset the benefit of traveling to New Hampshire for cigarettes, and the cigarette taxes are comparable or higher in neighboring Canadian provinces, she said.

So far, there’s no organized opposition to Baldacci’s proposal, but Republicans don’t like the idea of raising taxes.

“We cannot accept as a Republican caucus that this budget has to be balanced by tax increases on the backs of any one particular class of Mainers,” House Minority Leader Josh Tardy, R-Newport, said.

But, he added, it’s early in the budget process and Republicans and Democrats have to work together. “Therefore I think it’s way too early for anyone to be drawing lines in the sand,” Tardy said.

The governor’s proposal further cements Maine’s reputation as a place that’s taking aggressive action when it comes to tobacco use.

Last year, Maine became the first state to win a perfect score from the American Lung Association thanks to efforts to provide smoke-free environments, to raise the cigarette tax and to keep minors from smoking. It received a perfect score again this year.

Just last week, the city of Bangor adopted an ordinance that makes it illegal for motorists to smoke with children in the car.

Among advocates of steeper tobacco taxes, the theory is that for every 10 percent increase in taxes there is an overall reduction in smoking of 4 percent, said Peter Fisher of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington, D.C.

Many smokers seemed resigned to the fact that the public tide has turned against them. That doesn’t mean they’re happy about it.

At Victor News in Lewiston, many customers expressed Medlen’s sentiment that it’s time for the state to target something besides cigarettes.

“I think it’s terrible. It’s time to pick on someone else,” said Peggy Rowe, a Victor News customer who’s trying to quit smoking.

Others were OK with Baldacci’s proposal. “I hope it goes up enough to discourage my daughter from smoking,” said Jim Lysen, who does not smoke. His daughter, a student at Hofstra University in New York, picked up smoking while touring Europe with a friend.

Another Lewiston resident, Richard Whitney, said some people, his father included, will continue to smoke no matter how high the tax goes. Some of those people are those who can least afford to be spending money on cigarettes, he said.

“It could go to $10 per pack, and they would still smoke,” he said. “They’ll stop buying everything else to buy their cigarettes.”

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