Smoking ban has ‘around 50’ votes in House, sponsor says

UPDATE, Friday, Feb. 21: The bill has still not come to a vote. House Speaker Greg Stumbo said Thursday it had less than half of the 20 Republican votes needed to pass it, despite a floor amendment Westrom filed Tuesday that would exempt electronic cigarettes, private clubs and cigar bars.

The sponsor of the bill to ban smoking in enclosed public places says she expects to bring it to a vote in the state House on Wednesday or Thursday.

Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, declined to say exactly how many votes she has for House Bill 173, but averred, “I would say around 50.” The House has 100 members; they do not have to vote, but at least 40 votes are needed to pass a bill. Jeff Harper, a lobbyist for Kentucky Farm Bureau, which opposes the bill, said he has heard from legislators that the bill has 46 votes.

The bill has gotten out of committee several times, but has not been brought to a floor vote because it lacked the support to pass. Senate President Robert Stivers opposes the legislation, but “Westrom believes there is sufficient support among rank-and-file senators,” reports Stu Johnson of Kentucky Public Radio.

Four amendments have been filed to the measure. The one getting the most attention appears to be the one filed by Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, which would eliminate electronic cigarettes. Westrom said House members have seen “a mass pounding of emails” for the amendment, but many of the senders seem to think her bill would ban e-cigarettes entirely, which it would not.

Philip Morris Cos., which typically spends more at the legislature than any other lobbying interest, recently said it would get into the burgeoning e-cigarette business. It reported spending $30,697.63 in January on lobbying the General Assembly, more than any January since 2006. Of that amount, $19,841.74 was for five lobbyists and the remaining $10,855.89 was for unspecified expenses.

Westrom said the other amendment getting considerable discussion is one by Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, that would exempt cigar bars. Rep. Wilson Stone, D-Franklin, would exempt pari-mutuel wagering facilities, and Rep. Jim Stewart, R-Flat Lick, would put fines for violations in the state General Fund rather than the agency issuing the citation.

Westrom told Kentucky Public Radio that she’s prepared for amendments, and said local communities could impose stricter rules than the bill even it becomes law. “They can make the bill stronger if that’s what they choose to do within their own communities,” she said. “So, I don’t look at that as a defeat or something bad.”

Westrom said she thinks the bill will pass because “the facts are so compelling and the fears are unfounded.” She said the most common comment she hears from legislators is that they have many smokers in their districts, “especially in Eastern Kentucky.”

Kentucky has the nation’s highest smoking rate, 28.3 percent. Its Appalachian region had the lowest level of support for a ban in the Kentucky Health Issues Poll taken last fall for the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, but even in that area, 62 percent favored it while 34 percent opposed it. The poll defines Appalachian Kentucky as the 46 counties in the Big Sandy, Buffalo Trace, Cumberland Valley, Fivco, Gateway, Kentucky River and Lake Cumberland area development districts.

The Appalachian results may reflect the fact that the region is where residents are most likely to be smokers.

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