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Once a state with one of the top rates of young people smoking, Maine is now a model for anti-smoking success, according to a report by Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
"In 1997, 40 percent of Maine high school students smoked. That has dropped to about 20 percent," said Maine's Bureau of Health Director Dora Anne Mills. She attributes the drop to the many programs and efforts Maine has initiated to combat tobacco use.
"The bottom line is there are 12,000 children in this state who will not die of tobacco who would have died otherwise," she said, "and when you realize that, you understand these are programs we should all be proud of."
Mills said credit first goes to "ground troops" from organizations such as the American Lung Association and American Cancer Society at a time when resources to combat the tobacco industry were more limited. That began to change in 1997 when Maine doubled its tax on cigarettes from 37 to 74 cents per pack and used some of that tax money to form the Partnership For a Tobacco-Free Maine, an office whose sole function is to reduce tobacco use in the state. Two years later, the first money from the tobacco settlement arrived, an annual disbursement that ranges from $45 million to $50 million.
Mills said $15 million of that total is dedicated to programs to reduce tobacco use and obesity. Maine political leaders insisted from the start that tobacco settlement money had to be used solely for health-related initiatives.
"It is quite a remarkable event," Mills said, "because other states had their leaderships wanting to fill potholes and put it into the general fund, so we were very fortunate. People realized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the health of people in our state."
Maine went on to create 31 Healthy Maine Partnerships, a move aimed at strategically distributing settlement money across the state to people most familiar with the challenges in their area.
At the same time, Maine officials invested in a statewide media campaign against tobacco use, and legislators developed laws to put greater restrictions on smoking in public places and work sites. Maine also established a toll-free Maine Tobacco HelpLine that provides support to any tobacco user trying to quit.
The Public Health Service puts cessation success rates for smokers with no formal support at 5 percent to 10 percent. For Maine smokers who used the HelpLine, Welton said the success rate was 23.4 percent for those who received counseling and 35.7 percent for those who received a combination of counseling and nicotine therapy.