Is this the year Ky. lawmakers throw tobacco and e-cigarettes out of schools? Advocates see more hope, and rally for their bill

Rep. Kim Moser spoke at the tobacco-free-schools rally.
(Photo by Charles Bertram, Lexington Herald-Leader)

At a Jan. 22 rally in the state Capitol, students, educators and health advocates asked Kentucky lawmakers to pass a law to make all schools in the state 100 percent free of tobacco and electronic cigarettes.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said passing such a law should be a “no-brainer” for state elected officials who are committed to kids.

“Many issues that confront the Kentucky General Assembly are complex and complicated; the issue of tobacco-free schools is not one of them,” Brooks said in a news release.”Every young person deserves protections against exposure to secondhand smoke and to the dangerously high nicotine levels of e-cigarettes. Strong school campus policies on a statewide basis deliver those kinds of safeguards for all kids in every school.”

Kentucky’s high-school students smoke at a much higher rate than their peers across the nation, 14.3 percent compared to 8.8 percent. Almost as many, 14.1 percent, use e-cigarettes, which is a bit above the 13.2 percent nationally, according to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a national poll.

Health experts have warned that the e-cigarette rates are probably higher now because Juul sales have surged since the survey. A federal report released in November found that in 2018, one in five high school students and one in 20 middle school students are now using e-cigarettes in the U.S, representing a a 78 percent increase for high schoolers and a 48 percent increase among middle schooers in less than a year.

Passing a statwide tobacco-free school law could stop nearly one in three Kentucky students from smoking, according to the advocates. “This is an issue that should move ahead with speed, ease and consensus,” Brooks said. “There is no excuse or rationale for any other outcome.”

Two bills have been filed to make all Kentucky schools tobacco-free: House Bill 11, sponsored by Rep. Kimberly Moser, R-Taylor Mill, and Senate Bill 27, sponsored by Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester and co-sponsored by Sen. Stephen Meredith, R-Leitchfield. Both would bar the use of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, on all school properties and at all school events that are on school-owned property.

“Tobacco-free schools policies set a healthy example for students by de-normalizing tobacco use at school, where our children and teens spend a third of their waking hours,” said Moser. “In one Juul we have about the same amount of nicotine as one pack of cigarettes. That is crazy.”

Alvarado, a physician, said, “Most tobacco use starts while kids are still school-aged, a time when their brains are still developing and nicotine can hinder that development and cause lasting damage.”

He added, “The tobacco-free schools bill we’ve introduced is all about prevention,” stating that 90 percent of tobacco use starts before the age of 18, reports The Lane Report.

Fewer than half of Kentucky school districts have enacted such policies. As of July, 72 of the 173 districts had adopted 100 percent tobacco-free school policies, covering 734 schools and 57 percent of the state’s students. Federal law only prohibits smoking inside schools that receive federal funding.

In past legislative sessions, bills to require all school properties and school events to be tobacco-free have gained little to no traction. Two were introduced in the last session, but were not called up in the legislature’s education committees. The Senate passed one in 2017, but it died in the House.

Prospects look better this year. The House version of the bill has already been posted in the House Health and Family Services Committee, which Moser chairs. The bill also has the “newfound support” of the The Kentucky School Boards Association and the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, says the news release.

“We have cautiously waited to see how effective and workable these policies have been in the numerous districts that have adopted them. We believe the policies are working because enforcement has been crafted to fit each district’s needs, an approach which will continue with HB 11 and SB 27,” Kerri Schelling, executive director of the school boards association, said in the release.

Such a bill also has the support of 87 percent of Kentucky adults, according to the most recent Kentucky Health Issues Poll, which has shown consistent support for such policies since 2013.

And it also has the lobbying support of the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow, which is made up of about 180 organizations across the state. The coalition has made a statewide tobacco-free school law its highest priority this year, says the release.

Ben Chandler, the coalition’s chair and the president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, stressed that it’s important to pass this law now to recover the progress that has been made in reducing teen tobacco use that is steadily being lost because of the explosion in teen vaping.

“We’re coming up on half of Kentucky’s school districts that already have enacted these policies to reduce tobacco use by teens and to protect them from the significant health dangers of secondhand smoke and e-cigarette aerosol,” he said in the release. “Now is the time to extend those protections statewide, before we lose any more ground.”

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