Beyond Smoke-Free

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THE COURIER JOURNAL | EDITORIAL | DECEMBER 27, 2014

It looks as though the General Assembly might actually pass a statewide law to make public places smoke-free in Kentucky in 2015.

The public supports it. And in a state with the nation’s highest rate of smoking, that’s significant.

A January 2014 poll by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky found that 65 percent of the state’s adults favor a state law to ban smoking indoors at public places such as government buildings, stores, restaurants and offices.

A February 2014 Bluegrass Poll conducted for The Courier-Journal and other media outlets found a slightly smaller 57 percent supported such a statewide law, but still well above half of Kentuckians.

Still, lawmakers in an election year were unable to summon the political will in the 2014 General Assembly to call it for a vote.

Let’s hope 2015 is different.

A series of opinion pieces in today’s Forum section make a compelling argument for the law that would protect people from secondhand smoke, smoke they often are forced to tolerate on the job or encounter in stores, restaurants and elsewhere.

And that has serious health consequences for non-smokers. Health advocates estimate that 1,000 Kentuckians die each year from exposure to someone else’s cigarette smoke.

In a state where more than one in four adults smoke, it’s not hard to run into unwanted cigarette smoke unless citizens are fortunate enough to live in one of 23 Kentucky communities that already have adopted local smoke-free laws, including Louisville and Lexington.

Two sponsors of past smoke-free legislation have offered to support it again — Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, and Rep. Julie Raque Adams, a Louisville Republican who moves to the Senate in January.

Any measure should include E-cigarettes, which have not been proven safe, emit hazardous particles and contain the same highly addictive element as cigarettes, nicotine.

If lawmakers do pass a smoke-free measure in the upcoming legislative session, that’s just a start at tackling the state’s shockingly high rate of smoking.

The next steps must include increasing the state’s paltry cigarette tax of 60 cents a pack, the 40th lowest in the nation, and putting far more money into public education programs to help people stop smoking and keep young people from ever starting.

Higher cigarette taxes are one of the most effective means of preventing youths from smoking and encouraging adults to quit, according to The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

Yet Kentucky’s tax has never been sufficient to do either.

In 2005, the General Assembly boosted the ludicrously low 3-cents-a-pack cigarette tax to 30 cents.

In 2009, lawmakers doubled it to 60 cents a pack. Lawmakers have resisted pleas of advocates and Gov. Steve Beshear in subsequent years to raise it to at least $1.

And even that’s not enough. Advocates say that to really make a dent in smoking, states should boost it much higher, closer to the $4.35-a-pack tax in New York, the nation’s highest.

Meanwhile, Kentucky ranks 39th in the amount of money it puts into smoking cessation and education programs, according to recent report by a coalition of public health organizations.

The report, “Broken Promises to Our Children,” finds that many states have fallen woefully short in spending money from the windfall 1998 tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes on smoking prevention, Kentucky among them.

Kentucky will collect $347 million this year from tobacco taxes and the settlement but will spend only $2.5 million, less than 1 percent of it, on efforts to discourage smoking and help people quit.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Kentucky needs to spend far more — $56 million a year —to effectively combat smoking.

But even that doesn’t approach what the tobacco industry spends to market tobacco in Kentucky — $271 million a year, according to the Broken Promises report.

Kentucky ranks near the bottom in most public health problems with many caused by or linked to smoking.

It is a drain on the economy, worker productivity, the health of the citizens and the state’s ability to attract new employers.

Lawmakers have the power to change that if they would only exercise it.

Read the article online.