By Alex Lippa
---- — It’s not a report card anyone would be proud of: F, D, C, C.
Those are the grades given New Hampshire in the American Lung Association’s State of Tobacco Control 2013 report.
For spending absolutely no money on tobacco prevention control and spending, New Hampshire earned a big fat F. It’s not the first time and it’s not the only reason the American Lung Association thinks the Granite State needs a lot of remedial work.
The report also takes New Hampshire lawmakers to task for lowering the cigarette tax at a time when many states are increasing it to increase revenue and price more people out of the tobacco habit. For that, the state earned a C.
The GOP-dominated Legislature lowered the cigarette tax by 10 cents a pack in July 2011, dropping it to $1.68. Supporters of the tax reduction claimed it would promote cross-border sales and actually increase revenues.
A year later, in July 2012, the numbers didn’t add up that way. Cigarette tax revenue was a hefty $11.5 million below projections.
Just when the state cut the tax 10 cents a pack, manufacturers increased their cigarette prices — 10 cents a pack. Consumers saw no change and retailers reported no spike in sales.
New Hampshire’s tax is considerably lower than adjacent states — and was before the tax decrease. Maine’s tax is $2 a pack, Massachusetts adds $2.51 and Vermont’s rate is $2.62.
Health experts claim higher prices are an effective way of discouraging children and teens from starting the habit.
Neighboring Massachusetts got a “B” for its relatively high cigarette tax, but fared little better than New Hampshire on the rest of the report card. It got an “F” for its tobacco cessation funding and a “D” for its smoking cessation insurance coverage. The state budgeted $6.7 million for anti-smoking programs, far short of the $90 million the Centers for Disease Control recommended. The Bay State did get an “A” for its successful efforts to ban smoking in virtually every public and private facility.
With its relatively low cigarette tax, New Hampshire has the dubious distinction of boasting the highest youth smoking rate in the Northeast. A study done by the New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services showed that 19.8 percent of high school students in New Hampshire smoke cigarettes.
Raising the tobacco tax by at least $1 this year is high on the list of priorities the American Lung Association has outlined for New Hampshire.
“We know from research an increase by a dollar will impact people’s impact to smoke,” said Lee Gilman, senior director of health education in New Hampshire for the American Lung Association of the Northeast. “The price becomes an issue. Teens and young adults are particularly price sensitive.”
At least one young smoker agrees.
John Phillips, 17, of Derry smokes, but said a price increase would likely push him to kick the habit.
“I would absolutely stop buying them,” Phillips said. “It’s my money. They’re just too expensive right now. I wouldn’t be able to afford them.”
That might surprise Rep. Gary Azarian, R-Salem.
He said he doesn’t think New Hampshire’s tobacco tax should go much higher than the $1.78 it could revert to July 1.
“I think it would ruin cross-border sales,” Azarian said. “It would decrease lottery and liquor sales. If it is too much of an increase, it will be counterproductive.”
And, he said, he doesn’t believe a tax hike would result in fewer smokers.
“I don’t think raising the tax rate will decrease the amount of kids will smoke,” he said. “I think the state has to do a better job through health and human services to make sure kids aren’t smoking.”
But that takes money and that, Lung Association officials said, is New Hampshire’s problem.
“We are urging Gov. Hassan and state legislators to raise the cigarette tax in New Hampshire and to use cigarette tax revenue to fund the state’s tobacco control program,” Gilman said.
The state’s other two grades were a D for smoke-free air and a C for cessation programs and help. That’s nothing to brag about, Gilman said.
“The Granite State should be embarrassed to have the highest youth smoking rate in our region,” Gilman said. “Tobacco use costs the state too much in healthcare costs and lives each year, and there is simply not enough being done to discourage youth from smoking and to help smokers quit.”
Sean Cox, a health teacher at Salem High School, said he thinks fewer students are smoking, but still more light up than anyone would like to see.
“I’ve been here 30 years and I remember walking into bathrooms where there were just tons of smoke,” he said. “We haven’t seen that in 10 years.”
While today’s students certainly have been taught about the dangers and health risks associated with smoking or chewing tobacco, he said, more could be done.
“I wish when they lowered the tax they increased the information that was put out there,” Cox said. “We don’t spend on education like a lot of states do. As an educator, I would like to see more opportunities to get the word out.”
And, he added, he does think a higher tax rate would reduce teen smoking.
“I do feel that it would be a deterrent. Money is still an issue among teens,” Cox said. “If it was more expensive, I think it would be a factor in slowing rate of purchase.”
Staff writer Jo-Anne MacKenzie contributed to this report.