Tax hike isn’t best way to help smokers quit

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Are we about to see another state tax transfer millions of Maine cigarette smokers’ dollars into government programs said to help Mainers stop, or not start, smoking cigarettes?

Maine legislators sponsoring LD 945 “An Act To Reduce the Burden of Tobacco-related Illness by Increasing Revenue from the Cigarette Tax for Use for Tobacco Cessation” want to increase state taxes to $3.50 on each pack of 20 cigarettes, effective November 1, 2017.

Those who think this tax hike is a good idea say, in LD 945’s Summary, it means ongoing “funding in the amount of $8,100,000 per year … to the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for tobacco use prevention and cessation,” and “$1,000,000 in fiscal year 2017-18 and $750,000 thereafter for MaineCare members for tobacco cessation medications and counseling.”

Opponents say the cigarette tax increase will drive smokers to New Hampshire, internet sales, perhaps even to the black market.

Maine Energy Marketers Association President Jamie Py told the Joint Standing Committee on Taxation at the March 27, LD 945 public hearing, “Maine last raised its State excise tax on cigarettes by $1 per pack in 2005. [Next] year.., Maine retailers lost nearly 7 million pack sales to [New Hampshire] retailers, [and] the aggregate number of Maine’s convenience stores decreased by 15 stores …”

Dan Riley, an attorney representing Reynolds American, Inc., told the Tax Committee, “Maine forfeit[ed] $16 million in cigarette tax revenue to New Hampshire following the 2005 increase.” And, “If Maine enacts this proposed cigarette tax increase, smugglers could make approximately $1.5 million by transporting one tractor-trailer load of cigarettes from Virginia to Maine,” Riley testified.

If LD 945’s goal is to separate Mainers from tobacco, isn’t it cleaner to just vote to outlaw tobacco sales in Maine?

As Area Director for the non-profit Stop Smoking Clinics, Inc. (SSC) (1987-88), I worked in Washington, D.C., Delaware, Maryland, and Northern Virginia; building partnerships with local hospitals and businesses, and teaching SSC’s smoking cessation program to area residents and employees. I gave the introductory presentations, taught classes, trained teachers, manned the 24/7 helpline, and managed all SSC finances.

The people most successful at kicking tobacco, including me, paid full-price for the SSC program. In today’s dollars, full price was $321.28. The least successful people were subsidized 100 percent.

SSC’s was a one-month program. The goal was to quit smoking, and to figure out why you were smoking in the first place. Knowing why is key to staying comfortable after quitting. For example, most smokers used cigarettes as stress relievers. Okay, so what is causing the stress? There were many young mothers who spoke of lives run by young children, i.e. “Mom, do this. Mom, do that.” All day. Every day.

Stress on the job was the other most common lament. “I work for a jerk,” or “I hate my job,” or “I used to love my job, but now we have this insufferable micro-managing director, and I hate going to work.”

The first two weeks of the SSC program were spent weaning smokers off nicotine, gradually reducing the number of cigarettes smoked each day, and each day’s nicotine intake. We also used simple, but effective, behavior modification — always with the idea of making smoking uncomfortable and avoiding triggers.

The successful quitter lets go of the smoking habit as if letting go of a helium balloon that rises up, drifts away, and disappears.

There are successful detours around, and exits from, Tobacco Road, that bypass taxes on smokers. I’m inclined to travel that route as a way to stop smoking.

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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