With smoking ban dead for this year, its Senate sponsor holds a last-ditch discussion as she looks to another office

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Republican Sen. Julie Denton, sponsor of the Senate bill for a statewide smoking ban, held a last-ditch discussion Wednesday with the committee she chairs about why Kentucky needs such a law.

It was a discussion with no action possible because Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, who opposes Senate Bill 117, assigned it to the Judiciary Committee, of which he is a member, instead of the Health and Welfare Committee, headed by Denton, who is running for the Louisville Metro Council rather than re-election.

A frustrated Denton opened the discussion with personal stories about growing up with a grandfather who smoked heavily and the effects this has had on her father who has asthma and frequent respiratory infections. She said her daughter, who has asthma, cannot tolerate exposure to any smoke.

Denton (Legislative Research Commission photo)

“This is a public health issue, not about personal rights,” Denton argued.

She said governments infringe on personal liberties “all the time” to support public health. She gave examples of speed-limit laws, seat-belt laws, laws that prohibit texting while driving, laws that prohibit drinking and driving, building codes and car-seat law requirements.

“To say this is different than all the others is disingenuous,” she said.

As for the argument that non-smokers did not have to enter establishments that allow smoking, she said that is not an option for many who work in places that allow smoking: “People can’t afford to just go to another job.”

Denton said if the bill had been sent to her committee it would have been sent to the full Senate for a vote, but “Politics is standing in the way.” Not only is Stivers against it, leaders of the House’s Democratic majority blocked a vote on the House smoking-ban bill, citing members’ concerns about political repercussions in the fall elections, when Republicans hope to take over the House.

Democratic Sen. Julian Carroll, a former governor, commended Denton, saying her comments were both “relevant and very important.”

Carroll said “I am strongly in support of this bill” because of the cost Kentucky pays for people who smoke. He said the current state budget spends $9.5 billion on health care, and smoking is a strong contributor to that number.

Ashli Watts of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce said smoking costs Kentucky $1.5 billion every year, creates work absenteeism, raises tax and insurance costs and is bankrupting the state. She said more than 90 percent of Chamber members in a 2013 survey supported a ban, and it is time to join the other 24 states with such laws.

Dr. Sylvia Cerel-Suhl of the American Heart Association gave a long list of reasons to support the bill. “There is no longer any debate that second hand smoke causes death,” she said, adding later, “Just in Kentucky, we are losing 1,000 people a year to secondhand smoke.” Sherri Irwin of the Kentucky Rural Health Association cited the same number.

Smoke-Free Kentucky map; click on it for larger version

As a parting suggestion, Denton said Kentucky might consider allowing local governments to opt out of a statewide ban. Dozens of localities have bans, thought some have significant exemptions.

Denton acknowledged a collective frustration in the committee and said, “I won’t be here next year; hopefully, you all will push through.”

Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington said, “Perseverance does pay off. We will make this bill law one of these days.”

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