Maine Cancer Foundation launches youth anti-smoking campaign

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FALMOUTH — Every year 1,200 Maine youths become daily smokers, according to the Maine Cancer Foundation.

So it’s launching a new Youth Tobacco Prevention Campaign with the goal of encouraging kids to never to pick up a cigarette or other tobacco product, or to cease smoking now.

Kristen Smith, director of community engagement at the cancer foundation, which is headquartered in Falmouth, said the organization has committed to spending $750,000 over the next three years to support the statewide effort.

“The campaign will utilize digital media and disruptive messaging to counteract the impact of the more than $43 million invested in Maine annually by tobacco companies targeting the youth audience,” Smith said.

The ultimate goal, she said, is to “drive the youth smoking rate in Maine to zero.”

One in 10 Mainers 18 and under smoke combustible tobacco and another 17 percent say they regularly use electronic cigarettes, the press release said, while almost half of all Maine high school students report experimenting with smoking.

In addition, many Maine teens say they have a best friend or a parent who smokes regularly and that they can “access tobacco whenever they want.”

The Maine Cancer Foundation said raising the legal smoking age in the state to 21, which happened last summer, along with community education and youth prevention efforts, are key to reducing Maine’s overall smoking rates “and consequently, Maine’s cancer rates.”

The hope is that with “highly engag(ing) digital media tactics the Youth Tobacco Prevention Campaign (can deploy) powerful tools for preventing the initiation of tobacco use, promoting and facilitating cessation, and shaping social norms related to tobacco use,” the cancer foundation said in a press release.

Aysha Sheikh, director of programming at the cancer foundation, said that by “partnering with the Maine Center for Disease Control’s experienced tobacco prevention experts, we intend to fight back against the relentless marketing of tobacco to our youth.”

Tara Hill, the foundation’s executive director, said, “We are (making) a significant investment in protecting our young people from the harmful impact of tobacco in the hopes of changing this story.

“When the state invested more in anti-tobacco messaging, we saw concrete evidence that our smoking rates went down. As state funds have decreased, we have seen those rates go back up and we have a mandate to intervene,” she said.

According to Smith, “Lung cancer, most often caused by smoking, has the highest mortality rate of any cancer in Maine, and the number of new lung cancer cases is significantly higher than the national average, so by targeting youth we can slow lung cancer rates for a generation to come.”

On a new website and Facebook page, the cancer foundation is already reaching out to youth with videos and daily messages about the harmful effects of smoking.

Smith said some of the reasons more youth smoke in Maine than in other places around the country is because the state has a higher than average smoking rate in general, which subsequently contributes to higher youth rates.

Added to that, she said, is that Maine has lower than average tobacco taxes and “state spending on anti-tobacco messaging, which was extremely effective, has dropped off in recent years, so we are seeing the progress that (was being) made … start to decline.

She said the most effective first step that adults can take is to quit smoking themselves. “Kids in smoking households are much more likely to smoke than those who (don’t).”

“Educating kids about how tobacco companies are targeting them, about the dangers of tobacco, and about ways to steer clear of smoking are (also) essential,” Smith said.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

The Maine Cancer Foundation has launched a new youth anti-tobacco campaign, which specifically targets digital media, including a new website and Facebook page where daily messages are posted.