Smoking-ban bills will be filed again this year with some changes; GOP senator says chances are better in the Senate now

By Melissa Patrick and Al Cross
Kentucky Health News

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Supporters of a bill to ban smoking in Kentucky workplaces expressed higher hopes and suggested different strategies as the legislative session began Tuesday.

“Everybody is just ready to get something in place that will protect our workers and our cities,” said Democratic Rep. Susan Westrom of Lexington, who got the smoke-free legislation through the House last year on her fifth try.

After the bill narrowly passed the Democratic-controlled House, leaders of the Republican-controlled Senate sent it to an unfriendly Senate committee that never debated it.

This year in the Senate, chances are better, said first-term Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester. “I think there are some minds that are changing,” he said. ” We are still not at the promised land, but we are much closer.”

Sen. Ralph Alvarado

Alvarado said he is gaining support by assembling a compromise bill that addresses the concerns of Republican senators who objected to the House bill on various grounds, such as private-property rights.

He declined to say what those compromises might be, saying “I promised not to say anything until later” in the session, when he plans to introduce the bill. “An all-encompassing bill is likely not going to happen,” he said.

Senate President Robert Stivers of Manchester, asked if a smoking ban has a better chance of passing the Senate this year, said, “I would think it has because I think there may be three members in the chamber who are for it now. There were only two last year.” Stivers was apparently counting only Republicans; in addition to Alvarado, Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, favors a ban.

Westrom said she is also planning changes in her smoke-free legislation. She said it will be “somewhat different” and more “palatable” to those who were “uncomfortable” with last year’s bill, but said she wasn’t ready to share details, either.

“It streamlines it, is much easier to comprehend and it protects businesses,” she said. “It will still be a standard that will be set statewide, unless a community wants to set more strict standards in their own community.”

Some legislators have suggested that localities be given the right to opt out of a statewide smoke-free law. Westrom countered, “The problem is, when you have a patchwork, people don’t have any idea of what they are walking into. It is like local options for speed limits.”

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, scotched speculation that the House would wait on the Senate to pass a smoking ban before tackling the issue again. “We passed it pretty good last time; I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t do it again,” he said. “I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t. Nobody got into any trouble or fallout over it. It’s not a big political problem that I think some people believed it would be.”

Stumbo said the issue feels a bit like when the General Assembly passed seat-belt and booster-seat laws, which were controversial at the time but had few if any political ramifications.

Rep. Susan Westrom

Westrom said she received “nasty, threatening” messages when she first proposed a smoking ban, but in the last four years has only received encouragement or constructive criticism.

“Nine hundred people in the state die every year as a result of secondhand smoke,” she said. “It is absolutely irresponsible that we have allowed that to continue.”

Westrom said she couldn’t predict what the Senate might do, but did echo Raque Adams’ argument that legislators need to look at the cost of secondhand smoke to Kentucky.

Adams, who sponsored last year’s Senate version of the bill, said on KET recently that a smoke-free law could save $2 billion in Medicaid expenses over the next five years. That figure came from Smoke-Free Kentucky, a group advocating the legislation, she said Tuesday.

Adams also said that a ban would create tax revenue because “a healthier workforce makes us more attractive to businesses [and] makes workers more productive,” as well as reducing businesses’ health-care costs.

“I would think now that we have a new governor who has to really look at the fiscal consequences of the health issues related to secondhand smoke . . . with the budget crisis we are in, we have got to overturn every stone we possibly can to figure out how to save some money,” she said. “I think the writing is on the wall. This is something that would be just irresponsible for us to ignore.”

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin said in his campaign that smoking policies should be determined locally. Kentucky has scattered local bans that apply to about one-third of the state’s population.

The latest Kentucky Health Issues Poll found that two-thirds of Kentucky adults support a comprehensive statewide smoking ban, and have since 2013. The ban has support from solid majorities in each political party and has majority support in every region of the state. But more than one-fourth of Kentucky adults are smokers.

The Kentucky New Era of Hopkinsville, citing the cost of smoking to taxpayers, called on the Senate to pass the bill.

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