Bill to ban tobacco products from school property and activities heads to full Senate after change to satisfy school officials

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

FRANKFORT, Ky. – The idea of a statewide ban on smoking in workplaces has hit roadblocks in the General Assembly, but a bill to ban tobacco use on school properties and at school events might be a mandate legislators can accept.

Sen. Ralph Alvarado

“I think even those who might want to oppose it – I don’t think they dare. I think they are holding back and I think they are realizing that this is something good for kids, good for the state,” Republican Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a physician from Winchester and the sponsor of Senate Bill 78, said in an interview.

The bill unanimously cleared the Senate Education Committee Feb. 9 and went to the full Senate. It would prohibit use of tobacco products by students, school personnel, and visitors in schools, school vehicles, properties, and activities, allowing schools one year to adopt, implement and enforce the policy.

Asked if he thought SB 78 will become law, Alvarado said: “At this point, what I’m looking for is momentum. I tell people that we try to swing and try to get the home run. I’ll settle for the single and get on base and (then) start driving to score the runs we need to score.”

Alvarado has advocated a statewide smoke-free law, but has not been able to garner enough support for one in the Senate. The House voted for a smoking ban in 2014, but in 2015 voters elected Gov. Matt Bevin, who has said the issue should be decided locally, and in 2016 they replaced the House’s narrow Democratic majority with a Republican super-majority.

Alvarado told the committee that his bill “is a beginning attempt to help reduce our youth smoking rates in Kentucky,” which ranks third in the nation for youth smoking.

The 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey reports that 17 percent of Kentucky’s high-school students smoke. That is higher than the national adult smoking average of 15 percent, Alvarado pointed out. Even more, 24 percent, use electronic cigarettes. The survey also found that 22.5 percent of Kentucky’s middle school students have tried smoking.

Alvarado said 3,200 Kentucky youth become daily smokers every year, and Kentucky’s youth buy 11.4 million packs of cigarettes each year.

He also noted the health and academic consequences of youth tobacco use, including: increased lung infections, decreased physical fitness, poorer school performance and increased school absences than their non-smoking peers, to name a few.

Alvarado opened the meeting with some stark facts on how smoking affects the state, noting that 8,900 Kentuckians died from a smoking-related illness in 2015 and an estimated 950 die each year from exposure to second-hand smoke.

“Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S.,” he said.

He also listed the financial consequences of smoking on the state, including: $1.92 billion in health care costs; $589.8 million in Medicaid costs; an annual, individual tax burden of $1,168; and $2.79 billion in annual productivity loss.

“It is time for Kentucky to step up to the plate to protect its kids. Let’s get your children healthier, let’s save tax-payer money, let’s save Kentucky lives,” he said.

Just over half of Kentucky’s public-school students are in school districts with tobacco-free policies: 62 of the state’s 173 districts, covering 654 schools.

Jamie Sparks, coordinated school health director at the state Department of Education, told the committee that 23 districts have enacted such policies in the last two years, largely because of teens’ increased use of electronic cigarettes. “Strictly enforced tobacco-free school policies can reduce youth smoking by 30 percent,” he said.

Tom Shelton, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, told Kentucky Health News after the meeting that the association fully supports Alvarado’s bill, but was able to do so only after it was changed to allow local school boards to set their own policies without the education department’s involvement.

Noting that he was superintendent in Daviess and Fayette counties, which implemented tobacco-free campuses, he said “You can implement the policy without having to have an enforcement or discipline measure. It is really a matter of concentrating on communication, so that people will understand it; having appropriate policies and procedures; having signage; and then at each event simply making an announcement that says, ‘This is a reminder that our campus is tobacco-free,’ and making sure that people understand that. That, we believe is adequate.”

The bill still has language that would require school boards and their employees to enforce their policies. It would repeal a 1988 law that bans smoking in schools except by adults in designated smoking areas.

Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, said he supports the bill, but he pointed to the stark health and financial statistics that Alvarado shared and said, “In my opinion your bill doesn’t go far enough in terms of what we need to do to address that problem,” indicating his support for a statewide smoking ban.

Heather Wehrheim, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association, who worked with Alvarado on the bill, said it is “getting us closer to a comprehensive smoke-free law.” She said the best way to decrease Kentucky smoking rates would be a statewide comprehensive smoke-free law and to raise cigarette taxes by $1. She added that increasing the legal age to buy tobacco products to 21 and increasing state funds for prevention and cessation, would also help.

“The American Lung Association just released our State of Tobacco Control Report and Kentucky got “F’s” in every single area so we have a ton of work to do,” she said. “But we applaud this and Senator Alvarado’s work on it.”

Elizabeth Anderson Hoagland, a youth tobacco-policy specialist with the state Department for Public Health, said in an interview, “Tobacco-free school policies are very important for role modeling tobacco free lifestyles for youth. We really need to make sure all students are protected from second-hand smoke.”

A 2016 Kentucky Health Issues Poll conducted by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and Interact for Health found that 85 percent of Kentuckians support tobacco-free schools.

“We applaud the Senate Committee on Education for recommending a bill to make Kentucky school campuses smoke-free,” said Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the foundation. “We must protect Kentucky’s children, who spend seven hours or more of their day during much of the year in school, from the harmful effects of second-hand smoke” He added, “This bill is also a cancer-prevention bill.”

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