Ban on tobacco use in schools still alive; may pass House with measure raising to 21 legal age to buy tobacco and e-cigarettes; question may be ‘coming to terms’ with agricultural community

By Melissa Patrick and Al Cross
Kentucky Health News

With just three days left to pass bills, lawmakers in the state House are still working on measures that would protect Kentucky’s youth from tobacco and electronic cigarettes, efforts that health advocates have said could stop nearly one in three Kentucky students from ever smoking.

House Speaker David Osborne

A bill to ban the use of tobacco at all public schools and their events was finally in line for a House floor vote Thursday, but House Speaker David Osborne said it was delayed by a drafting error in his amendment to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21.

“I will take blame for it; the amendment was overly inclusive and it specified all tobacco products, meaning cessation products as well, and that was not intended to be in there,” Osborne said Thursday. “That is not the intent of my amendment. . . . I’m having that amendment re-drafted.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, said in an email Friday night that she expects the House to vote on her House Bill 11 Tuesday. “The House has indicated their support for the measure, so I anticipate its passage and being sent on to the Senate,” she wrote.

But for the bill to become law, Senate leaders would have to put it on the fastest possible track, giving its first reading on Tuesday, soon after House passage. It takes three days for a bill to get through the House or Senate, and the last legislative day is Thursday — except March 28, when the legislature will return for one day to reconsider any bills that Gov. Matt Bevin may veto.

Senate President Robert Stivers

A Senate bill to raise the legal age to 21, known as the “tobacco 21” bill, failed in the Senate Agriculture Committee Feb. 25, but Senate President Robert Stivers said Republicans who run the Senate would consider moving the combined “tobacco 21” and tobacco-free schools bill if passed by the House with all “sectors of that community” in agreement on it.

“We had a lot of communications, and we thought there was a consensus on that bill from all sectors of that community — be it producers, growers, whomever — and apparently it collapsed,” Stivers said of the “tobacco 21” bill. “I told them that they needed to go find a solution and bring it to us from the House perspective. So once they do that, if they can do that, then we’ll deal with it when it gets here.”

A key player in the process is Altria Group, the leading cigarette manufacturer, which is buying 35 percent of Juul Labs, maker of the electronic cigarette that is by far most popular with young people. Altria pushed the “tobacco 21” bill in what critics said was a public-relations maneuver to show that it isn’t targeting minors. Altria gave $100,000 to the state Republican Party building fund in October and is routinely the legislature’s biggest-spending lobbying interest.

However, Altria and its allies have had difficulty getting the consensus Stivers called for, since some legislators see the “tobacco 21” bill as an attack on a crop that has relatively few growers but is a big part of the state’s economical, cultural and agricultural heritage.

On Thursday, Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, in an impassioned floor speech about tobacco and hemp production in Kentucky, said that he voted against the “tobacco 21” bill in committee after hearing several members from rural communities say, “If we move the age to 21, we are finally putting the death knell on tobacco in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”

Sen. Steve Meredith

The “tobacco 21” bill’s sponsor, Sen. Steve Meredith, R-Leitchfield, said he took “great issue and umbrage” with Carroll’s assertion and didn’t want to be “labeled with that mantle” because that was not his intent.

“This was not my bill,” Meredith told the Senate. “I was asked to carry it, and I enthusiastically did so, for two reasons. One, because I think it really addresses a crisis issue with vaping products for our young people, same with smoking,” he said. “But also I was told that this was going to save the tobacco industry because the FDA was really scrutinizing the situation with regard to teenage smoking and vaping products, saying there was a real possibility that they could take actions that could greatly harm the tobacco industry in Kentucky.” He didn’t explain how that might happen.

The FDA has called teens’ use of electronic cigarettes an epidemic, and cracked down on flavored e-cigs, which teens report is the main reason they start using the products. Recently, it called out major retail chains for wholesale violations of age limits on purchases of such products.

Meredith said he was told that the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association had endorsed his bill, “so I’m getting some very mixed messages to what the future of tobacco is in Kentucky. And if we’re going to visit this issue again in the near future or in the next session, I think we need to come to terms with the agriculture community [over] exactly what do we want to do with tobacco.”

The House has had trouble coming to terms, too. Moser’s bill passed unanimously out of the House health committee, which she chairs, but has remained on the House calendar since Feb. 11.

House Majority Floor Leader Bam Carney, R-Campbellsville, has told Kentucky Health News several times that the holdup has been a lack of unity among the 61 House Republicans about whether making schools tobacco-free should be determined through a statewide mandate or be decided locally. About 42 percent of the state’s school districts ban the use of tobacco.

Several amendments have been filed to the bill to try to appease the concerns of those who say this measure amounts to government overreach. One, by Rep. R. Travis Brenda, R-Cartersville, would allow adults to use tobacco products at schools when students are not present. Another, filed by Moser, would allow local school boards to opt out of the ban. A provision that would expire three years after the law takes effect in 2020.

Asked Thursday if HB 11 was likely dead, Osborne said, “Do you think I would be filing an amendment on a dead bill? I’ve got a lot of things to do with my time and messing around with dead items is not one of them.”

He added, “It is very late, obviously. As of right now, if a bill has had two readings it can be moved in three days so there is certainly still time. We have four days left on the calendar and so time is tight, but we can still do it.”

Previous Article
Next Article