A masked man walks by a sign on Exchange Street in Portland on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine lawmakers want to send millions more to a tobacco prevention fund cut under the former governor and still languishing under the current one.

Maine led states in tobacco prevention spending in the early 2000s. But the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which contains money from a landmark 1998 tobacco industry settlement, has often been diverted for purposes not directly related to smoking. Under former Gov. Paul LePage, it increasingly paid for Medicaid and still mostly goes toward that budget item.

After a high of $19 million spent in 2000, prevention funding has dwindled to just above an all-time low at $4.3 million per year, according to the Tobacco Advisory Council. Funding more than doubled in a two-year budget signed by Gov. Janet Mills in 2019, but lawmakers and the Democratic governor did not continue that during this budget cycle.

Buoyed by an $800 million revenue surplus expected through mid-2023, Democrats and some Republicans are backing a bill to add $10 million over two years toward anti-smoking efforts. Supporters argue it is critical in a state with the highest amount of adult smokers in the Northeast and a higher lung cancer mortality rate than the rest of the U.S.

The state can easily fund the increase, Rep. Kristen Cloutier, D-Lewiston, the bill’s sponsor, told the Legislature’s health committee on Thursday. She also cited the ongoing threat of COVID-19, which is more dangerous for people with respiratory issues and other health risks.

“While we are in the midst of a global pandemic, fighting a virus that attacks our lungs, we need to be doing all that we can to prevent tobacco use and to help current smokers to quit,” she said.

Maine has taken aggressive action on tobacco in recent years. The Legislature overrode LePage’s veto in 2018 to make Maine the fifth state to raise the legal purchase age to 21. Cloutier’s bill drew no opposition on Thursday and it is sponsored by two Republicans, Sens. Marianne Moore of Calais and Paul Davis of Sangerville.

While there may be wide support, lawmakers are going to have to elevate it on their list of priorities. A measure to ban flavored tobacco that was supported by Mills, but it was cut out of a bipartisan budget deal inked last year over a $32 million cost and Republican opposition.

The Maine Tobacco Prevention and Control Advisory Council, a group that was dormant for years but recently revived, wants to see funding restored to federal recommendations of $15.9 million per year, according to their latest report. The panel is also recommending a cigarette tax hike that failed in the Legislature last year despite being endorsed by a committee.  

The council also wants the state to focus more attention on communities where tobacco use is more prevalent, such as among people of color and the LGBTQ+ community, and among younger people before their habits set in.

“We are obviously working on prevention, but we have a lot of young people that are addicted now and need help,” said Edward Miller, chair of the advisory council, during a briefing, “and it’s different help than you’d provide to a 40-year-old who has been smoking Camels for 25 years.”