Legislator’s Log – Tobacco Use is not as Popular in Kentucky as it was Just 11 Years Ago

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JOURNAL ENTERPRISE | REPRESENTATIVE BRENT YONTS | OCTOBER 2, 2011

More than a third of Kentucky adults smoked in 2000, or 30.5 percent, according to the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Today the state estimates the percentage of adult smokers in the state is 24.8 percent.

The drop in smoking among children and teenagers is even more dramatic, based on the Cabinet’s statistics. In 2000, 37 percent of high school students and 22 percent of middle school students in the Commonwealth were smokers. Today, 10 percent fewer high school students (26.6 percent) and 13 percent fewer middle schoolers (9 percent) are current smokers according to the Cabinet.

Reasons for the decrease in smoking in our state are many, including the growing movement to ban smoking in public, media campaigns against smoking, and the rising cost of cigarettes and other tobacco products. At least 31 Kentucky communities have enacted smoke-free polices in public and/or private buildings, and state Executive Branch have been smoke-free since 2006. The cost of cigarettes in Kentucky has also increased with market fluctuation and a 57 cent hike in the state excise tax on each pack of cigarettes since 2005.

Media campaigns against smoking are manifold in the Commonwealth, with organizations like the American Cancer Society, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and American Lung Association and state agencies including the Department for Public Health among them. The Department for Public Health’s Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Program—designed to prevent premature death caused by tobacco use—has implemented other programs to discourage the use of tobacco products and limit exposure to secondhand smoke. The state program reaches local communities through local health departments, Medicaid coverage for tobacco use cessation, and other efforts like the state’s 100% Tobacco-Free School program.

Just recently I learned that the 100% Tobacco-Free School program is encouraging all school districts, including our school districts in Muhlenberg, Christian and Hopkins counties, to go 100 percent tobacco-free through a very visible partnership between the state’s public health and education departments that both agencies hope will improve the health of school children, teachers and staff, and the general public. The partnership was shared with every school superintendent in Kentucky in a June 16 letter from Public Health Commissioner Dr. William D. Hacker and Education Commissioner Terry Holliday, Ph.D. that spoke candidly about the dangers of tobacco use and encouraged superintendents to pass and implement the 100% percent Tobacco-Free School policy.

A 100% Tobacco-Free School policy is very strict: It prohibits tobacco use by staff, students and visitors 24 hours a day, seven days a week inside school board-owned buildings and vehicles, school-owned property, and during school-sponsored events like field trips and sports activities. But, for tobacco-free advocates like Dr. Hacker and Dr. Holliday, a 100% Tobacco-Free School policy is key to supporting education and health among students. As they said in their letter, “It’s the right thing to do for the health of your schools and communities.”

Kentuckians pushing for a smoke-free Commonwealth is not a small group, according to a poll taken last December during a push for a statewide smoking ban during the 2011 Regular Session of the Kentucky General Assembly. The poll of 500 likely voters, which was released in January by the American Heart Association, American Lung Association, American Cancer Society and Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, revealed that 59 percent of Kentucky voters support a law to make all restaurants, bars and other workplaces smoke-free.

Seventy six percent of those likely voters said they think exposure to secondhand smoke is harmful; 67 percent said they think the right of customers and employees to breathe clean air in eating and drinking establishments is more important than the right to smoke or allow smoking, and; 55 percent said they prefer a candidate for state office who supports a smoke-free law over one who opposes a smoke-free law. Support was from a majority of Democrats, Republicans and independent voters.

This level of support is not really that surprising, considering that people in over 30 communities in the Commonwealth have some level of protection in public places and/or the private workplace.

I wonder what you think about the movement for a comprehensive statewide smoke-free law that would prohibit smoking in all workplaces in Kentucky. Twenty seven states and over 447 municipalities nationwide had enacted statewide smoke-free laws as of July, and smoke-free advocates in Kentucky want our state to be one of the next states on the smoke-free list. If you think it should be, I encourage you to call the state Legislative Toll-Free Message Line at 800-372-7181 and leave a message for me and your other state lawmakers letting us know. Knowing your opinion will be helpful should the push for a statewide smoke-free law resurface (as I expect it will) in the next regular legislative session beginning in January. Have a good week ahead.

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