Kentucky House Endorses Statewide Smoking Ban in Landmark Vote

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HERALD-LEADER | JOHN CHEVES| FEBRUARY 13, 2015

The Kentucky House narrowly approved a statewide ban on indoor smoking Friday, allowing health advocates to claim a tobacco state victory they’ve sought for five years.

“While there is more work to be done, we see today’s vote in the House as a step toward greatly reducing Kentuckians’ exposure to secondhand smoke,” said Susan Zepeda, president of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, citing the state’s high rates of lung cancer, heart disease and asthma. “We know the harm cigarettes are causing to our citizens.”

But health advocates might not want to inhale just yet. The smoking ban proceeds from the Democratic-led House to the Republican-led Senate, where it faces tougher odds. Although some GOP senators back the smoking ban — including the chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee — Senate President Robert Stivers said he doesn’t see “a groundswell of support” for the proposal.

The tobacco industry spent more than $800,000 last year lobbying the legislature.

Also Friday, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill to address Kentucky’s heroin epidemic and bonds to fund half of a proposed $265 million medical research center at the University of Kentucky. Both measures move on to the Senate, where a competing anti-heroin bill has already been approved and Stivers has made personal appeals for the UK project.

The day’s most controversial measure was the smoking ban, House Bill 145, which passed 51 to 46.

It took Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, years of back-room arm-twisting to get the House to hold such a vote, something she acknowledged in a floor speech. Many lawmakers dreaded “going out on a limb” by taking a public stand on smoking that was sure to alienate at least some voters, Westrom said.

It wasn’t that long ago that smokers fired up throughout the Capitol; gray plumes of tobacco smoke still fill county courthouses across Kentucky.

“I’m no fool,” Westrom said. “I can sense that sometimes our leadership wished I would have gone away. And sometimes our members wished I would have gone away.”

She later added, “I can’t tell you the names I’ve been called over the last five years. But if this job were easy, everyone would be doing it.”

Westrom said 950 Kentuckians die annually from diseases related to breathing secondhand smoke.

Her bill would prohibit smokers from lighting up until they are at least 15 feet outside of an enclosed public space, such as an office or restaurant. Local governments or health officials would fine smokers $25 for a first violation and $50 for subsequent violations. Business owners could face fines in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on the frequency of violations.

The bill was made more acceptable to some lawmakers with an amendment to protect existing smoking bans in the roughly two dozen cities and counties — including Lexington — that already have them, even if those local bans are weaker or allow more exemptions than the statewide ban.

That amendment gives local governments a “window of opportunity” to get out ahead of the statewide ban by passing their own local ordinance before the state law would take effect this summer, said Rep. Tanya Pullin, D-South Shore.

The House also amended the bill to exempt cigar bars, tobacco shops and private clubs. It rejected a proposal by Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, to exempt e-cigarettes. Lee argued that many smokers use e-cigarettes to quit smoking, and the electronic devices do not emit tobacco smoke in their vapor. But smoking ban supporters said the health impact of e-cigarette vapor still is not known because the devices are new.

Nearly two dozen states have enacted statewide bans on smoking in workplaces and indoor places. Kentucky — where 27 percent of adults report smoking, the second-highest rate in the country — has resisted the trend.

Some lawmakers who opposed the ban said Friday that the state should not infringe on the liberty of private business owners. Others said their constituents grow tobacco.

“It’s not an easy vote,” said Rep. Richard Heath, R-Mayfield. “Tobacco is a legal product. We have a lot of tobacco farmers in my district. I promised them I would not support a smoke-free Kentucky, and by voting ‘no’ today, I have honored my commitment.”

On the anti-heroin bill, House Bill 213, the House voted 98 to 0 to send it to the Senate, which already has passed its own proposal, Senate Bill 5. Both bills would try to divert more money for addiction treatment, toughen penalties for major traffickers and provide greater public access to naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose.

The two chambers will have to negotiate a compromise on their differences, though, such as a local option for needle exchanges for addicts (in the House plan) and an across-the-board prison sentence for anyone convicted of trafficking in any amounts (in the Senate plan).

Several House members told personal stories of family members they’ve lost to heroin addiction. Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Shively, said Friday was the birthday of her nephew, who died from a heroin overdose a couple of years ago. Nobody thinks heroin addiction can happen in a “good” family until it suddenly does, Jenkins said.

“Any one of us are at risk of someday being addicted, especially to opiates,” Jenkins said. “For many of us, we are a bad car wreck or a bad dental accident away from experiencing that.”

The House also approved House Bill 298, a request from UK for help build a medical research center on its Lexington campus. UK President Eli Capilouto testified this week that the $265 million building would bring 1,623 jobs, $5.6 million in local and state taxes, and $116.2 million in total economic impact. The bill would authorize issuing state bonds and appropriate $5.4 million for debt payments in the upcoming fiscal year, but it’s not clear where that money would be found in the current budget.

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