Supporters of statewide smoking ban push for floor votes; opposition in Senate may not be as strong as before

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

While the advocates of a statewide smoking ban might have been “preaching to the choir,” as one put it during a legislative committee meeting Wednesday, Dec. 17, they heard a passionate call to go out and persuade their fellow legislators to pass a smoking ban in the 2015 legislative session, or at least give it a vote on the floor of a chamber.

“Go to our members in leadership, both the majority and the minority, and tell them this needs to be a priority this year. We cannot afford to wait any longer,” Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, longtime sponsor of the House legislation, told the Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare. “It will have to begin with us here pressuring them to make sure that this is the number one priority.”

Westrom has sponsored the legislation in the last four sessions. It came close to a floor vote in the full House last year, but has never gotten out of committee in the Senate, even though polling shows that 65 percent of Kentuckians support banning smoking in indoor public places.

Westrom said after the meeting, “There is a large increase in the number of people at the local level who support a statewide smoke-free law. Their soft speech has now turned into a roar.”

Rep. Susan Westrom

Westrom said at a recent meeting of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, which supports the ban, that her main lobbying adversary is the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation.

The chamber’s support was noted by board member Brent Cooper, president of C-Forward Inc., an information technology firm in Northern Kentucky. He said the law would help improve the health of Kentuckians, which would decrease the cost of insurance for businesses.

“For businesses, that is one of the most compelling reasons to support the smoke-free law,” he said. “Most of my group is a relatively young, relatively healthy group and our insurance premiums went up 30 percent last year and we are facing a huge increase again this year. Why? Because we absorb the state of Kentucky now. We absorb all of the workers in the state of Kentucky and guess what, Kentucky is an unhealthy place,” forcing insurance rates up.

Cooper said some legislators who have told their constituents that they would not vote for a smoking ban may now feel differently, but don’t know how to tell them they have changed their mind. He said those legislators should educate their constituents.

“Convince them, show them the latest data,” he said. “Show them that blowing toxic fumes in somebodies face impacts their health. Convince them of that. Tell them it is the right thing to do.”

Wayne Meriweather, chief executive officer of Twin Lakes Regional Medical Center in Leitchfield, also representing the Kentucky Hospital Association, gave the legislators an arsenal of facts to educate with:

  • 26.5 percent of Kentuckians smoke;
  • Kentucky leads the nation in lung cancer and lung cancer deaths;
  • Kentucky is the 47th unhealthiest state in the nation;
  • Kentucky leads the nation in smoking;
  • 7,900 Kentuckians die each year due to active smoking;
  • 27 percent of Kentucky’s blue collar workers are exposed to second hand smoke at work;
  • second hand smoke exposure increases the risk of heart and lung disease by 20 to 30 percent;
  • 950 Kentuckians die each year from second-hand smoke.
He then provided facts on how much smoking costs the state of Kentucky:
  • $1.92 billion a year for annual health-care expenditures directly as a result of tobacco use;
  • $106 million a year in annual health-care expenditures in Kentucky from second hand smoke;
  • $487 million a year in state Medicaid expenditures due to tobacco use (this was before the expansion of Medicaid);
  • $988 million a year in total taxpayer cost from smoking-related expenses, or $591 per household; and
  • $2.3 billion is lost each year because of lower productivity.
Rep. Julie Raque Adams, a Louisville Republican who will be joining the Senate in January and sponsoring the smoking-ban bill there, said it should not be a partisan issue, and “Saving taxpayers’ dollars is one of the most conservative things we can do.”

Incoming Senate Majority Whip Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon said that he supports smoke-free laws on a local level. Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, said that while he would likely vote for a statewide smoking ban if it comes to a floor vote, he thinks it should be addressed at a local level.

Senate President Robert Stivers, who has said he does not favor a statewide ban, was less vocal about his opposition in a statement to cn|2‘s “Pure Politics.”

“Sen.-elect Julie Adams has been very upfront concerning her support and sponsorship of a statewide smoking ban and she makes some good points; however, other senators voiced concern that this is a local issue for communities to address and enforce rather than having the state take on another regulatory role at this time,” said Stivers, R-Manchester. “So I see this as one of the issues this session that is going to have to go through the legislative process of discussion and debate and we will see where it goes from there.”

Stivers has previously been more vocal about his opposition to smoking bans, saying they don’t offer personal choice and that he believes businesses should have the right to set their own policies.

Westrom said that when she was first asked to sponsor a Smoke-Free Kentucky bill 11 years ago, she also thought that it should be a local decision and declined, but not enough local leaders have stepped up. As of October 2014, 23 Kentucky communities have smoke-free policies that cover all workplaces and enclosed public places, according to the Smoke-Free Kentucky website. This breaks down to 32 percent of Kentuckians covered by strong local smoke-free laws.

With two-thirds of Kentuckians supporting a statewide smoking ban, it is time for statewide leaders to do it, Westrom said.

Some say that public opinion will drive Republicans or leaders of the House’s Democratic majority to act this year. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, reiterated his support for a statewide smoking ban through his spokesman and told Pure Politics that “it may be time for an up-or-down vote” in the House.

The General Assembly’s session begins Jan. 6. After a few days devoted to election of leaders, organization of committees and mandatory ethics training, the legislature will recess until early February. The session of 30 legislative days must end by March 31.

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