Tobacco-free-schools bill, hotline to report use of electronic cigarettes in schools are on track to pass before end of session

Bonnie Hackbarth of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and Rep. Kim Moser presented the tobacco-free school bill (Photo by Melissa Patrick)

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Two bills that address teenagers’ tobacco use are still on track to become law, one to ban use of tobacco products at all Kentucky public schools and events, and another to create a hotline in schools for students to anonymously report the use and distribution of electronic cigarettes.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, would ban the use of tobacco and electronic cigarettes on all school-owned properties and school-sponsored events on school properties. The bill does not prohibit the possession of tobacco and e-cigarette products, just the use of them. Enforcement would be left up to individual school boards. Smoking in schools is already banned.House Bill 11, known as the tobacco-free school bill, was the only bill heard Thursday at a special Senate Health and Welfare Committee meeting. It passed unanimously, but needs one more day to become law.

Today is the legislature’s last day before adjournment until March 28, when it will return to reconsider any bills vetoed by Gov. Matt Bevin. Sen. Ralph Alvarado, the committee chairman, said after the meeting that he was “cautiously optimistic” that the bill would pass the Senate March 28.

Alvarado, a Winchester physician who is Bevin’s running mate for lieutenant governor, added that Bevin “has told me he would sign this bill. We just need to get it to him.” The Senate passed a similar, stronger bill in 2017.

“Modeling this positive behavior for students is critical, especially in schools,” Moser told the Senate committee. “This creates an environment where tobacco use is not the norm.”

Moser noted that there has been an explosion of electronic-cigarette use among teens, increasing 78 percent among high-school students and 48 percent among middle schoolers in the last year alone.

The bill had lingered on the House calendar for more than a month after unanimously passing the health committee, which Moser chairs, and was finally passed in the House on an 85-11 vote after getting two amendments to appease concerns about state-government overreach. One would give schools three years to opt out of the ban; the other would allow adults to smoke on field trips or at events off school property events when students are not present.

The Senate committee passed the bill unanimously, but not before Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, questioned who was going to be the “tobacco cop” in the schools. After voting yes, Wise said he’d like to check with school boards about the enforcement issue before the March 28 vote.

Moser has said that the bill has the support of the Kentucky School Boards Association and the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents. About 42 percent of the state’s school districts ban the use of tobacco.

Bonnie Hackbarth, vice-president for external affairs with the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, told the committee that many of those districts have told her that with signage and messaging put out with the policy, it is often “self-enforcing.”

For example, she said school officials in Bullitt County told her that they have created an educational card that they hand people when they politely tell them that the school’s tobacco policy has changed to no longer allow use on school properties or school events.

“What we’ve been told over and over is that an educational approach is very effective,” she said.

Students from Johnson County Middle School advocated a bill
to create a hotline for students to report concerns about vaping.
(Photos by Melissa Patrick, Kentucky Health News)

Senate Bill 218, sponsored by Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, passed unanimously out of the House Health and Family Services Committee, but was not placed on the consent calendar for bills that are passed without debate, after one committee member suggested that the topic was so important that it needed to be discussed on the House floor. It awaits final passage.

This bill would create an anonymous hotline or electronic system for students to report concerns about the distribution and use of e-cigarettes or other tobacco products on school property or at school events. It also includes an educational component and guidelines for how to handle the reporting.

Students from Johnson County Middle School presented the bill and suggested that the hotline be added to the anti-bullying hotline that should already exist in every school.

The students painted a vivid picture of the rampant in-school use of electronic cigarettes, which the seventh and eighth grade students only referred to as “juuling,” referencing the most popular e-cigarette used by teens, made by Juul Labs.

The students said Juul products are easy to hide because they look like a large computer flash drive, that kids don’t know that they have cancer-causing agents, and the devices’ high nicotine content is causing children to become so addicted that they can’t even make it through a class without going to the bathroom to use a device. One Juul pod has the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes.

One student said, “Today’s kid who Juuls isn’t the same kid who smoked cigarettes 30 years ago; it is the straight A student and the school athlete.”

Asked if they were learning about the dangers of electronic cigarettes in their health classes, they replied in unison, “We don’t have health classes.”

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