Chances Improve for Statewide Smoking Ban

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THE RICHMOND REGISTER | RONNIE ELLIS | DECEMBER 17, 2014

Kentucky has come a long way, baby!

Maybe not as far as some anti-smoking activists wish, but far enough that a statewide smoking ban may stand a chance of being passed in the 2015 General Assembly.

More than half a century after the Liggett and Myers tobacco company ran ads touting their cigarettes as “just what the doctor ordered,” Kentucky lawmakers Wednesday were given a list of smoking’s costs to Kentucky: the nation’s highest incidence of lung cancer and lung cancer deaths, the second highest rate of heart disease, $1.9 billion in annual healthcare costs attributable to tobacco and $487 million in Medicaid costs.

“It is time that we “get this done and move on,” said Brent Cooper, chairman of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

“The evidence is clear,” said Wayne Meriwether, CEO of Twin Lakes Regional Medical Center in Leitchfield. “A smoke-free Kentucky will save lives, save money and is supported by a majority of people.”

Cooper and Meriwether testified before the Interim Joint Health and Welfare Committee in support of a bill sponsored by Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington. She has tried repeatedly to pass the bill, but it may enjoy a better chance in 2015 because fewer and fewer Kentucky farmers grow tobacco. More lawmakers appear to be coming around on the issue, polling indicates overwhelming public support, and lawmakers won’t face voters in 2015.

Even Republicans members opposed to “big-government” mandates said they support the bill’s goal, including Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, who said he’d prefer local communities act without legislation from Frankfort.

Even so, Bowen said Wednesday, “If we voted today, I’d probably vote for it because that’s where my head and heart are.”

Others need little persuasion.

Senator-elect Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, who supported Westrom’s bill last year when she was a House member, urged colleagues – especially conservative Republican colleagues – to support the bill, citing data which shows smoking and second-hand smoke cost state government millions in health care costs, lost productivity and increased tax expenditures.

“Saving taxpayer dollars is one of the most conservative things we can do,” Adams said.

Westrom said she too once preferred that local governments take the lead. But 11 years after she was first asked to sponsor such legislation, “70 percent of the people in this state support this, but the people at the local level won’t show leadership on the issue.”

Committee co-chair Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, recalled the first time he sponsored no-smoking legislation 30 years ago in a General Assembly dominated by rural, tobacco-state lawmakers. His bill was assigned not to a Health and Welfare Committee but to the Agriculture Committee.

“When I went to testify on the bill, every member of that committee lit up,” Burch recalled. “I told the people behind me: ‘I think this bill’s got some problems.’ ”

The present Health and Welfare committee includes two physicians: Rep. Bob DeWeese, R-Louisville, and Rep. David Watkins, D-Henderson. Both talked about the decades they’ve spent trying to persuade patients to give up tobacco and the ravages they’ve observed on patients’ health and the emotional suffering it has caused their families.

But DeWeese also pointed out the committee has previously passed out legislation to make Kentucky smoke free, but Democratic House leaders wouldn’t call the measure for a floor vote. Westrom took the opportunity to ask committee members to lobby leaders in both chambers to give the bill a vote this time.

The bill also has never received a floor vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.

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