Smoking Ban May Not Pass, but Statewide Support is Clear

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THE INDEPENDENT | DECEMBER 27, 2014

Will 2015 be the year the Kentucky General Assembly approves a statewide ban on smoking in public? Don’t hold your breath, but there is no question that support for a statewide ban in public is increasing, even in a state where tobacco was once king.

State Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, has repeatedly tried to convince reluctant legislators to approve her bill that would ban public smoking in all 120 counties, but her bills have never passed the House of Representatives and never even been brought up for a vote in the Senate. Without predicting her proposal will fare any better in 2015, Westrom said more lawmakers appear to be coming around on the issue, and with polls showing overwhelming public support for a statewide ban and lawmakers not facing voters in 2015, she thinks the odd of getting her bill enacted in to law in 2015 are greatly improved.

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 last week were given a list of the costs to Kentucky from smoking: the highest incidence of lung cancer and lung cancer deaths in the country, second highest rate of heart disease, $1.9 billion in annual health-care costs attributable to tobacco and $487 million in Medicaid costs.

For the second consecutive year, the pro-business Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the state’s largest lobbying organization, has made enactment of a statewide smoking ban one its top legislative goals. The chamber is convinced smoking costs business millions of dollars in additional health insurance costs, in employee absences and in lost production time.

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

“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 Westrom’s bill, but even Republicans opposed to “big-government” mandates said they support the aim of the bill, including Republican Sen. Joe Bowen of Owensboro who said he’d prefer local communities act without legislation from Frankfort.

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

It is also where the majority of Kentuckians are.

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 the commonwealth and 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 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-chairman 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. That was at a time when the legislator who chaired the Agriculture Committee threatened to cut state funding for the University of Kentucky because it had the audacity to ban smoking in classrooms.

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

The current 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. For his part, Gov. Steve Beshear has called for a state ban on public smoking.

One would think a bill that seven out of 10 Kentucky adults say they support would sail through the General Assembly with only token opposition. On any other issue, that may be true, but when it comes to tobacco and  smoking, polls do not matter. Tobacco may no longer be king in Kentucky, but it still is mighty powerful — so powerful that we’d be surprised, albeit pleasantly, if Westrom’s bill again bites the dust in 2015. The time will come when Kentucky will approve a statewide smoking ban, but that time is yet to arrive.

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