AUGUSTA – To encourage smokers to quit, and to keep kids from ever starting, Maine’s cigarette tax should be boosted from $1 to $2.50 a pack, health advocates said Wednesday at a State House press conference.

Standing near a logo that read, “Raising the price so our kids won’t pay,” the Maine Coalition on Smoking or Health called on state lawmakers to increase the state tax by $1.50 a pack “as soon as possible.” Such an increase would make Maine’s cigarette tax the highest in the nation, and bring the cost of a pack to about $5.

Now, Maine’s $1-a-pack tax is the second-lowest in the Northeast. Maine cigarette taxes “have fallen behind” neighboring states, the health advocates said.

New Hampshire has the lowest tax at 52 cents per pack; Rhode Island has the highest at $2.46 a pack. Taxes in Vermont, Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut range from $1.19 to $1.51 a pack.

Saying the public is behind a higher cigarette tax, the group released a survey that it paid a company to conduct. The survey indicated that of 400 Mainers polled, 67 percent favored raising cigarette taxes by $1.50. It also showed that 71 percent thought state cigarette taxes should be increased and the extra funds used for health programs.

In Maine, an estimated 76 percent of adults do not smoke.

Gov. John Baldacci spokesman Lynn Kippax said Baldacci “is interested in anything that improves the health of citizens, but he’s not interested in sin taxes. He’s not going to come out in favor of anything he’s yet to read.”

House Majority Leader Glenn Cummings, D-Portland, said Democrats do understand that Maine cigarette taxes are low compared to other Northeast states, and that higher taxes can mean lives and health dollars would be saved. But the $1.50 hike seems “quite aggressive,” Cummings said.

House Minority Leader David Bowles, R-Sanford, however, said, “Republicans are opposed to any new or additional taxes, period.”

Asked if raising cigarette taxes would tax those who can least afford it, since most smokers tend to be poor, Carol Kelly of the Maine Coalition on Smoking or Health said low-income people “are the ones who can benefit the most. Low-income folks are the ones most harmed by tobacco use.” She said they are the ones most likely to be sensitive to prices and more likely to quit.

Research shows that raising cigarette taxes is among the best ways to discourage smoking, advocates said. The higher tax would raise about $80 million a year in Maine, advocates said, but more importantly would prompt an estimated 22.8 percent drop in young smokers and a 5.3 percent drop in adult smokers.

When cigarette prices go up, “the demand goes down,” said Dennise Whitley of the American Heart Association. “Kids are particularly sensitive. For many young people, higher prices could make the difference between addiction and a life free of tobacco-related diseases. We also know that 70 percent of smokers want to quit,” she said. A substantial price hike would be the final straw that pushes them to quit, Whitley said.

Less than a decade ago, Maine had the highest youth and adult smoking rates in the nation, said Gordon Smith of the Maine Medical Association. “Thanks to the vision of the Maine Legislature, Maine has taken an aggressive approach to fighting tobacco use, including two tobacco tax increases” since 2000.

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