State Needs Smoke-Free Law

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THE COURIER-JOURNAL | DEBORAH YETTER | DECEMBER 27, 2014

One of the greatest joys for Dr. Salvatore Bertolone is successfully treating children with cancer.

But one of his deepest disappointments is seeing some of those children who survive cancer later become cigarette smokers — or be exposed to others who smoke.

“It makes my heart jump,” said Bertolone, a pediatric oncologist for 35 years and a University of Louisville pediatrics professor. “It is very disturbing.”

Kentucky leads the nation in its rate of adult smokers and is among several states with the highest rates of youth smoking. In this state, 26.5 percent of adults and about 18 percent of youths smoke.

And 24.4 percent of pregnant women smoke, putting their infants at greater risk of premature birth, death and disability.

Not coincidentally, Kentucky leads the nation in lung cancer deaths and has some of the highest rates of other illnesses linked to or worsened by smoking including heart disease, strokes and diabetes.

The financial toll in medical costs statewide is staggering — about $1.9 billion a year. The emotional costs of disease, suffering and death are incalculable.

Yet Kentucky has failed to adopt proven measures to cut smoking and improve health, particularly among youths. That includes a higher cigarette tax, more funds for public stop-smoking campaigns and a statewide smoke free law that prohibits smoking indoors in public including offices, restaurants and stores.

It’s the smoke-free law that appears to be getting the most traction as supporters regroup to fight for a law in a state where nearly 1,000 people die each year from exposure to someone else’s cigarette smoke.

After several years of failing to win approval in the Kentucky General Assembly for what has become an indisputably bipartisan measure, supporters are betting on a victory in 2015.

It’s been a long time coming, say those who have long sought such a law.

“This is the issue I most regret not being able to see through to the end,” said state Sen. Julie Denton, a Louisville Republican who chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and is retiring from the state legislature after 20 years. “It is a no brainer.”

Denton’s comments came at this month’s meeting of the joint House-Senate Health and Welfare Committee where proponents got a chance to pitch the measure to a largely receptive group of lawmakers.

Proponents included primary sponsors of the 2015 bill—Rep. Susan Westrom, a Lexington Democrat who sponsored the unsuccessful 2014 measure that died in the House, and the Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Julie Raque Adams of Louisville.

Come January, Adams will move to the Senate where she will continue to push the smoke-free law after replacing Denton as chair of health and welfare.

At the Dec. 17 meeting, she urged her colleagues to do the math: $1.9 billion a year in health care costs, nearly $500 million of that in state Medicaid expenditures.

“These numbers are too dramatic,” she said. “They call for leadership. Saving taxpayer dollars is one of the most conservative things we can do as members of the General Assembly.”

Westrom urged lawmakers worried about a backlash from constituents to “keep an open mind” and work to educate people in their districts about the effects of second-hand smoke.

The measure is backed by an interesting coalition of health advocates, hospital executives, lawmakers and business groups including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

Joining Westrom and Adams to speak on behalf of a smoke-free law were Wayne Meriwether, the CEO of Twin Lakes Regional Medical Center in Leitchfield, representing the Kentucky Hospital Association, and Brent Cooper, president of a Covington internet technology company and member of the state chamber of commerce board.

Cooper said such laws don’t hurt businesses — in fact, businesses often benefit from non-smokers who appreciate the smoke-free environment.

While Covington is covered by a local ordinance, most of Northern Kentucky is not and many envy Cincinnati which is covered by a citywide smoke-free ordinance, Cooper said.

“Their bars and restaurants are doing just fine,” he said.

Around the country, 24 states have adopted smoke-free laws.

In Kentucky, 23 local communities have adopted smoke-free laws including Lexington and Louisville, the two largest cities. Gov. Steve Beshear recently ordered state buildings and property to go smoke-free.

But those measures cover only about one-third of the state’s public indoor areas and that’s why supporters want the law statewide.

They say such laws have been proven to reduce smoking and disease, citing studies from the University of Kentucky’s Center for a Smoke-Free Policy that shows when communities adopt smoke-free laws, as many as one-third of smokers quit, heart attacks decline and fewer people visit emergency rooms for asthma attacks.

Observers like Bertolone, the child cancer doctor, believe it’s time for the state to get more involved in protecting citizens from cigarette smoke, starting with a smoke-free law.

“Yes, I think we should ban it in public places,” he said.

Meanwhile, he’ll continue to give his standard lecture to his young patients about not smoking and avoiding cigarette smoke though he’s not sure they all believe it — which is why the state needs to do more to discourage youth smoking.

“Teenagers do not even think about the fact that they might be invincible,’ he said. “They know they are.”

Deborah Yetter is an editorial writer at The Courier-Journal. Call her at (502) 582-4228; email her at dyetter@courier-journal.com

Smoking in Kentucky

About 17.9 percent of youths under 18 smoke. That’s about 180,000 kids. Among adults, 26.5 percent, or about one in four Kentucky adults smoke.

About 5,700 new youths will become smokers each year, about 371,700 of the state’s estimated 1 million youths under 18 will become smokers in their lifetime, and 119,000 of kids alive today will die from smoking-related causes.

About 8,900 adults die each year from smoking-related diseases.

Among pregnant women, 24.4 percent smoke, putting their infants at greater risk of premature birth, low birthweight, death and disability.

At 60 cents a pack, Kentucky has the 40th lowest cigarette tax in the country. It ranks 39th in the amount of money it spends to prevent smoking.

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