The LePage administration over the last seven years has hacked away at Maine’s public health infrastructure. Now we are seeing the results.

For the first time in 20 years, the percentage of Maine high schoolers who smoke tobacco is above the national average. Nearly 1 in 5 of Maine adults smoke, well above the national average, and the worst rate in New England.

And that’s just one indicator. The United Health Foundation’s annual America’s Health Rankings report has Maine as the 23rd healthiest state. A year ago, Maine was 22nd, after falling from 15 in the report’s largest one-year decline. In 2010, the year before Gov. Paul LePage took office, Maine ranked eighth.

Some of that is thanks to the half-hearted response to the opioid epidemic from the governor and the Legislature. Some of it too is the result of LePage’s policies that have hurt low-income Mainers.

But it is also the result of the governor’s general ire toward public health, an area he has sought to restructure but has instead dismantled.

Here are just a few of the hits.

LePage for years drastically reduced the number of public health nurses. He cut funding for school-based health centers, the only place where some students from low-income families can see a doctor, dentist or mental-health counselor.

And heended the 27 successful and popular Healthy Maine Partnerships, local coalitions that worked on tobacco prevention and cessation, addiction, obesity and other public health matters.

The governor then handed most of the partnerships’ duties to regional councils, before also cutting their funding, leaving the Mainers fighting these issues on the ground without money, support or direction.

The Healthy Maine Partnerships could sure be useful now. Supported solely by Maine’s share of the federal tobacco settlement funds, the partnerships played an important role in the smoking prevention and cessation programs that made Maine an anti-tobacco leader.

But such efforts have been working uphill for a while. The tobacco industry spends about $42 million a year advertising and marketing its products in Maine. In comparison, the state now spends only $5.3 million of its $43 million in settlement funds on prevention and cessation. That’s down from $10 million in 2010 and $15 million 2008.

The latest data, from 2015, says that more than 11 percent of Maine high school students smoke cigarettes, while another 17 percent vape. Advocates say that preliminary data to be released in 2018 are concerning, and that years of underfunding prevention efforts and inattention to public health could come back to haunt the state.

The LePage administration argues that the Healthy Maine Partnerships were not getting the job done. The governor got rid of them because he said he had a better plan.

If so, we haven’t seen it yet, and we feel the partnerships’ stellar record speaks for itself.

There is a way to clear this up.

The administration commissioned an outside report on its efforts in the area of public health, an analysis that includes the Healthy Maine Partnerships. Such a report could go a long way in proving the efficacy of LePage’s approach. It certainly could show why Maine is getting more unhealthy, and what can be done about it.

According to the Bangor Daily News, however, the Department of Health and Human Services has refused to release the report, and won’t say when it will. The report, funded by the taxpayers, was finished in March.


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