Tobacco ban for public-school properties and activities heads to the House on 25-8 Senate vote

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

FRANKFORT, Ky. – The state Senate passed a bill Feb. 15 to ban the use of tobacco products and electronic cigarettes on public-school properties and during school activities, but not without debate about local control and overreach.

Senate Bill 78 would prohibit use of tobacco products by students, faculty, staff and visitors in schools, school vehicles, properties, and activities, and give one year to adopt, implement and enforce the policy. It passed 25-8, with two pass votes and now heads to the House for consideration.

Sen. Ralph Alvarado

The sponsor, Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, told the committee that the bill “is a beginning attempt to help reduce our youth smoking rates in Kentucky,” which at 17 percent ranks third in the nation. “A strongly enforced tobacco free school policy can prevent or delay students from using tobacco. Some studies have shown up to a 30 percent reduction in student smoking.”

Despite earlier comments by Alvarado that he didn’t think others would “dare” oppose a bill to decrease Kentucky’s youth smoking rates, several legislators voiced concerns about local control, overreach, unintended consequences and enforcement.

Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, acknowledged the bill’s good intent and noted that Shelby County school district was smoke-free, but he also pointed out that the ban doesn’t just concern students, “but also concerns the school bus drivers at the school bus garages and places where there aren’t even any students around.”

“So, I’d urge the members to think about this,” Hornback said. “You know, we are in favor of local control until we are not, and this is one of those things where we want to come down and mandate to the local school boards what they need to do, rather than letting them decide like they are doing right now.”

Hornback, who was a prominent tobacco farmer before becoming a senator, also wanted to know if a person would be in violation of the law if they had tobacco in their personal vehicle while on school property.

Alvarado replied, “If you would be on school property, you would be in violation, according to this. Again, the enforcement on the policy would be up to the local school boards.”

Alvarado, a physician, said he changed the bill at the behest of the Kentucky School Boards Association and superintendents to allow school districts to develop their own enforcement policies.

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.

Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, said she also appreciated the intent of the bill, but had concerns about its overreach and enforcement, noting that as written, the bill would not allow volunteers or chaperones to use tobacco products in the privacy of their own hotel room on a school-sponsored trip.

“I just think it is a little far-reaching. I don’t think it’s enforceable,” Webb said. “I don’t know what the enforcement would be unless it would go back to that local control. I think there are some portions of this bill that are a little vague, undefined and extends beyond the scope of the intention of the bill.”

Webb passed on the vote. So did Sen. Johnny Ray Turner, D-Prestonsburg, a basketball coach at a smoke-free school. He voiced concerns about the financial impact of the bill on schools if attendance decreases at outdoor sporting events because people can’t smoke. He said tobacco policy should be a local decision.

Besides Hornback, senators who voted against the bill were Republicans Joe Bowen of Owensboro, Tom Buford of Nicholasville, Stan Humphries of Cadiz, John Schickel of Union and Wil Schroder of Wilder, and Democrats Julian Carroll of Frankfort and Perry Clark of Louisville.

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