September 13, 2010

GOVERNOR'S RACE: Mainers' health in focus at forum

By Rebekah Metzler
MaineToday Media State House Writer

BAR HARBOR -- Early education on issues like smoking and nutrition are keys to making Mainers healthier, said all five gubernatorial candidates during a forum hosted by the Maine Medical Association in Bar Harbor on Sunday morning.

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The candidates were asked six questions that focused on teenage smoking, obesity, teen suicide and how to attract more doctors to Maine, during the 90-minute forum held before more than 100 doctors gathered for their annual weekend conference.

Asked first whether or not they would support increasing excise taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products, the three Independent candidates -- Eliot Cutler of Cape Elizabeth, Shawn Moody of Gorham and Kevin Scott of Andover -- said they would consider it.

Republican nominee Paul LePage of Waterville and Democratic nominee Libby Mitchell of Vassalboro said they would not at this time.

"In this very difficult economic environment, even though there is a correlation between the cost of tobacco and youth smoking, I would not be in favor of raising the tobacco tax at this point," Mitchell said. "I would be in favor of finding other avenues of dealing with the youth smoking epidemic."

Mitchell, Maine's Senate President, has supported such increases in the past.

Waterville Mayor LePage, who has led the five-person field in polling since the field was set, said he also opposes raising taxes on tobacco products.

"Having come from the welfare environment, I know what happens when you raise the taxes on tobacco products -- what happens is they get their cigarettes, one way or the other, and who suffers, but the kids?" he said. "They will give up good dietary programs to get their cigarettes. The best thing is to educate, don't legislate."

Cutler said he knows how hard it is to quit smoking because he did it in 1988.

"Raising taxes on cigarettes is not a broad-based tax and clearly is an effective strategy and I think it's one we need to think about," he said, adding that anti-smoking education should be increased before looking to raise taxes.

Moody said he would support a slight increase if it went to fund law enforcement aimed at preventing the sale of tobacco products to underage children and promoting the dangers of tobacco use in school. Scott said he would support an increase if the money went to the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which pays for smoking prevention and cessation programs, among other things.

Jo Linder, president of MMA and host of the forum, asked the candidates how they would seek to increase the amount of physical education Maine students receive and increasing the healthiness of food available on school grounds. Maine ranks last in the country in providing the nationally recommended amount of minutes per week of physical education for students and medical expenditures for obese adults costs Maine more than $350 million a year, Linder said.

"We need to make sure that kids in school actually learn about healthy behaviors and healthy eating, we need to connect our farms and our school lunch programs and finally, we need to have some kind of statewide guidance or standards for physical exercise," Cutler said.

Mitchell said teachers and parents need to make it cool to eat healthy.

LePage said parents and schools need to better educate children on nutrition, but he also linked the problem to Maine's economy.

"In this state, all we have to do is make this state prosperous, allow Maine families to go from 80 percent of the national average in earnings to 100 percent so they can compete and buy healthy groceries," he said.

Moody said Maine needs to work increasing the high school graduation rate and Scott said Maine farms should help provide healthier foods in schools.

Linder also asked about how they would improve the mental health of Maine citizens.

"Mental health has been stigma for generations and it gets down to education, awareness and acceptance," Moody said. "(We have) to catch people before they fall, that's the real key to mental health in Maine. We've got to grow our way out of this because we can't afford to cut our social safety net in this state."

Scott said people suffering with mental health issues need treatment and services available; Mitchell said people have to better learn how to identify when family members and peers are having trouble; LePage discussed the charity work he's done for the past decade with the High Hopes Clubhouse in Waterville, helping people with severe mental illness get along in society; and Cutler said physicians and those in the mental health community need to work more closely together.

The entire forum will be available on the Maine Medical Association website soon, Linder said.

Rebekah Metzler -- 620-7016

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