House sends tobacco-free schools bill to Senate with three days left in session, minimum needed for passage; backers have hope

Rep. Kim Moser

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

A bill to make all Kentucky public schools and events tobacco-free passed the state House overwhelmingly Tuesday, but with just three legislative days left before adjournment, it needs the fastest possible track through the Senate, which passed a similar bill two years ago.

House Bill 11
 would ban the use of tobacco and electronic cigarettes on all school-owned properties, including all school events on such property. It does not prohibit the possession of tobacco and e-cigarette products, just use of them. Enforcement rules would be left up to individual school boards. It passed 85-11.

“Its purpose is to eliminate tobacco use during school hours and at after school events in order to help create an environment where tobacco use is not the norm,” its sponsor, Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, told the House. Smoking inside schools is already banned.

The bill had lingered on the House calendar for more than a month after unanimously passing the health committee, which Moser chairs. She and Republican leaders indicated that it was short of being supported by a majority of the 61 Republican members, some of whom said it was overreach by the state into a local issue.

The bill got those votes with the help of two floor amendments by Moser. One filed last week would give schools three years to opt out of the ban. An earlier one would allow adults to smoke on field trips or at events off school property events when students are not present.

Opponents of the bill said there are already laws in effect that allow local school boards to decide whether they want to ban tobacco or not, and 42 percent of them had decided to do so.

Moser replied that nearly 60 percent haven’t, and noted that 90 percent of adults report that they started using tobacco products when they were teens – and that for the first time in years there has been an uptick in tobacco use, largely driven by e-cigarettes, which can be highly addictive.

“It’s just time to stop addiction where it starts and we know that it starts in teen years,” she said, adding later, “This would send a strong message that we care about Kentucky youth’s health.”

Rep. Richard Heath, R-Mayfield, who had been a key opponent of the bill, said he was able to support it with the amendments.

“If the 60 percent of schools that have not adopted a tobacco policy would have done so, we wouldn’t be having this discussion today,” he said. “It forces the 60 percent who have not taken this stand to come to the table and consciously say we are going to have to do something – we’re either going to have to go with it or opt out, and while we’re at it, we need to adopt a policy for our schools.”

Some members of the Coalition for a Smoke-free Tomorrow, a coalition of 208 organizations, did not support the amendments.

Ellen Hahn, a University of Kentucky nursing professor and the longtime leader in Kentucky tobacco-prevention efforts, noted that cities, counties and schools aren’t allowed to opt out of other public health measures. “Opt-out provisions have long been a tobacco industry tactic to derail meaningful and effective tobacco control policies,” she said.

Bonnie Hackbarth, vice-president for external affairs with the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, called the vote a “major step forward in protecting our youth” and said the foundation would now be able to target its educational efforts to communities that choose to opt out.

That is, if the bill becomes law. It reached the Senate too late Tuesday to get a first reading. Bills need three readings before passage, and there are only three days left in the session, including March 28, the day set for reconsideration of vetoed bills. The “veto session” has often been used to send bills to the governor, who then can veto them without risk of a legislative override.

Sen. Ralph Alvarado, Gov. Matt Bevin’s running mate for lieutenant governor and chair of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said he hopes to get the bill before his panel for a quick hearing.

“We have three more days,” he said. “It took us this long to get it out of the House the way it is . . . so I don’t know that we’re going to want to make a lot of changes to it. We want to make it as easy as possible for passage.”

Alvarado said he is hopeful because a stricter tobacco-free-schools bill passed the Senate in 2017, and he thinks a majority of the Republican caucus would support it, but he still needs to make sure that Senate Republican leaders do.

Moser, in her second term in the legislature and her first as a committee chair, said that she was thrilled that HB 11 had finally gotten a floor a vote, and that she was still hopeful it would pass out of the Senate since Alvarado is so committed to getting it passed.

“I’m grateful that I had so much support, not only the support here but in the community,” she said. “It’s been huge, a real team effort. It’s been a lot of fun to see all the advocacy and all the support.”

A floor amendment filed by House Speaker David Osborne, to raise to 21 from 18 the legal age to buy tobacco and electronic cigarettes, was not called for a vote. It replicated a Senate bill that failed in committee. That bill was pushed by Altria Group, the top cigarette manufacturer, which is buying a 35 percent stake in Juul Labs, maker of the most popular e-cigarette.

Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

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