BOSTON >> Massachusetts taxpayers have shelled out an extra $542 million since state lawmakers voted three years ago to hike the tax on cigarettes and gasoline, with none of the cigarette revenue going directly to anti-smoking programs.
That's rankled some activists, who have turned their attention to pushing for a ban on the sale of tobacco products to those under 21.
From September 2013 through the end of May, smokers have plunked down an extra $285 million from the new $1-per-pack hike tax, according to information provided to the Associated Press by the Executive Office of Administration and Finance.
Drivers paid an extra $257 million to fill up their tanks as a result of the 3-cent-per-gallon increase.
While virtually all of the gas tax money went to highway construction and maintenance, none of the extra cigarette taxes went specifically to fighting tobacco use.
Instead a portion of the extra cigarette revenue — about $63 million — went to the Commonwealth Care Trust Fund, while the bulk — about $222 million — went to the state's general fund.
A budget plan approved by lawmakers for the fiscal year that began July 1 funds the state's anti-smoking efforts at just under $4 million.
Casey Harvell, director of public policy for the American Lung Association of the Northeast, said advocates would welcome more state dollars to discourage smoking.
"We have definitely advocated for more of that money to go to prevention and cessation programs," Harvell said, adding that the extra funding would be particularly helpful in fighting teen smoking.
While the smoking rate among high school students in Massachusetts is just under 11 percent — lower than the adult smoking rate of about 15 percent — it's particularly important to stamp out smoking among young people since 90 percent of smokers claim they first took up the habit when they were under 21, she said.
Harvell also noted what she said was a troubling surge in the popularity of electronic cigarettes among teens.
Massachusetts was once a national model for its smoking cessations programs.
In a historic 1998 settlement, tobacco companies agreed to pay $206 billion over 25 years to 46 states — including Massachusetts — to settle lawsuits.
For a time, the influx of money helped Massachusetts pay for a robust anti-smoking campaign, including television ads and dozens of programs aimed at combating youth smoking.
By 2003, the state's spending on anti-smoking programs had dropped from about $50 million to less than $6 million as lawmakers siphoned away money to cope with an ever-increasing budget deficit. That would continue to fall to about $2.5 million, although it has recovered a bit.
With the state facing a drop of up to $950 million in expected tax revenue for the 2017 fiscal year, it seems unlikely there will be any sudden increase in anti-smoking funds.
Activists have instead turned their attention to a bill that would hike the age at which individuals can buy cigarettes.
Amber Herting, a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said advocates understand the state's revenue problems.
"That's among the reasons why we are currently working with the Legislature to pursue a comprehensive tobacco control strategy — including an increase in the legal age of the sale of tobacco to 21 — aimed at preventing youth from ever picking up this deadly addiction in the first place," Herting said in an email.
In April, the Massachusetts Senate voted overwhelmingly to raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21.
The future of the bill is murkier in the Massachusetts House.
On Thursday, Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo said that while he backs the measure, he's still trying to gauge support among fellow representatives.
"So far in my discussion with members, the support has been lukewarm so to speak," DeLeo told reporters Thursday. "I'm still at this point trying to test out members to see if they're willing to take that extra step."