AUGUSTA – Democrats say: Double the cigarette tax. Republicans say: Cut state health care programs.

Those are the two biggest competing provisions – and the biggest decision – in the budget amendment facing lawmakers.

Smokers aren’t happy about higher cigarette taxes. But doctors are, saying it’s needed to discourage smoking and also to prevent thousands from losing health coverage.

If Maine doubles the cigarette tax as Democrats are poised to do, from $1 to $2 a pack, the cost of one pack would jump from about $4.10 to $5.10.

That may be too much for Shelly Cox of Lewiston.

“I’d probably really think about quitting,” Cox said Wednesday while at Simone’s Hot Dog Stand with the lunch crowd. Raising the cigarette tax “would be a bad thing,” she said.

While some smokers like her might quit, others would not, Cox said.

“My grandmother went to a nursing home. She quit, but then started up again,” Cox said. “People would continue to smoke. Their families would go without because they’re going to continue to smoke. Look how much cigarettes have gone up,” she said, noting that people still smoke. “They should tax something else, because people who are smoking are addicted.”

Paul Laliberte of Lewiston said that he hasn’t smoked for 25 years and doesn’t favor smoking. But he disagrees with raising cigarette taxes. “They should try to cut spending, as opposed to keep taking money out of citizens’ pockets.”

Helping teens

Health advocates, however, said hiking the cigarette tax would be a two-for-one win. Higher taxes would keep young people from starting to smoke, and the revenue would continue health coverage for thousands, they say.

The Maine Medical Association, which represents 2,600 Maine doctors, wanted cigarette taxes to go up $1.50, but it’s happy with the $1-a-pack increase.

“It will create a healthier Maine. It’s good for Maine,” said the association’s Gordon Smith. “Fewer people in Maine will smoke, and more people will quit.” Studies show that one in every three Maine kids will die prematurely from smoking.

“The data is irrefutable that teens are more sensitive to price increases” and don’t smoke when prices are high, Smith said. “For every kid we can stop from smoking, that’s a huge win for the state, and for public health.”

The cigarette tax would create revenue “to shore up health programs and not tear Dirigo apart,” Smith said, referring to the state’s health-care program.

Higher taxes no answer

The Republican minority budget plan calls for no tax increase. Republican House Leader David Bowles, R-Sanford, criticized the Democrat plan, saying Maine already has high taxes, and higher taxes are not the answer. The GOP plan would not kick anyone now on MaineCare off, said Rep. Darlene Curley, R-Scarborough.

Health professionals disagreed, saying the Republican cut of $20 million in a MaineCare program would mean no more coverage for 22,000 poor Mainers. Because there’s nearly a 70 percent federal match for every $1 Maine spends on MaineCare, the impact would be close to a $60 million cut, wiping out the so-called “non-categorical” program, said Ellen Schneider of the Governor’s Office of Health Policy and Finance.

Republicans also propose cutting $32 million from Dirigo. “That would shut the program down,” Schneider said. “There’s no way you could keep it going. … Right now there are 7,300 people on that program.”

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