If Kentucky Lives Matter, Let’s Go Smoke-Free

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HERALD-LEADER | OP-ED | JANUARY 7, 2015

Politicians of both parties are falling all over each other to stem heroin deaths in Kentucky.

At least a half-dozen bills dealing with the upsurge in heroin use await action during the legislative session that began Tuesday. Candidates for statewide office also are giving the fight against heroin a high profile in their campaigns.

It will be deeply disappointing if the General Assembly fails, as it did last year, to enact a common sense response based on sound public health practices — including equipping first responders with the overdose antidote Naloxone and providing needle exchanges to prevent the spread of hepatitis and HIV while putting users in touch with medical professionals.

It will be downright disgraceful if jockeying for credit or to appear toughest on heroin dealers (who in many cases are also users and addicts) leads to another dead end.

The House and Senate should move their heroin bills quickly and waste no time working out the differences. Then, if lawmakers are sincere about saving Kentuckians from fatal addiction, they will also enact a statewide smoke-free law.

Overdose deaths, sudden though often not surprising, are heartbreaking, especially when the victims are young.

Deaths from tobacco addiction in Kentucky are slower, more excruciating and far more numerous.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 8,900 adult Kentuckians die each year from causes attributable to smoking. Smoking costs Kentucky $1.9 billion in medical expenses and $2.3 billion in lost productivity annually. Those numbers do not include the effects of exposure to secondhand smoke, which, coming off the end of a cigarette unfiltered, is more toxic than what smokers inhale.

About 1,000 people in Kentucky have died from drug overdoses each of the last few years. In most fatal overdoses, several drugs are present; heroin has been present in about a third of them. In addition, 569 accidental fatalities in Kentucky were classified as drug-related in 2013. Horrific statistics, but a fraction of the deaths and suffering caused by tobacco.

A smoke-free law, protecting Kentuckians from breathing someone else’s smoke at work or in enclosed public spaces, would cost the state almost nothing. Business would not suffer as we see in the minority of Kentucky places that have local smoking bans. Smokers would remain free to light up at home, in their cars and where smoking is allowed.

But smokers who want to quit — and most say they do — would have an easier time of it.

Smoking bans reduce smoking, especially among youth and young adults, according to Surgeon General reports.

Heroin may seem like a nasty invader, while tobacco, well, golly, gee, it’s part of the family.

But nothing prematurely kills more Kentuckians than smoking cigarettes. Lawmakers who believe that Kentucky lives matter will vote to make Kentucky smoke free this year.