Statewide tobacco-free-schools bill finally passes, and the governor is expected to sign it into law, effective July 1, 2020

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

FRANKFORT, Ky. — A bill to ban the use of tobacco products in all Kentucky public schools and events finally passed on the last day of the legislative session and is on the way to Gov. Matt Bevin’s desk for his signature or veto.

Sen. Ralph Alvarado

Because it was the last legislative day, Bevin’s decision will be final. Sen. Ralph Alvarado, Bevin’s running mate for lieutenant governor, reiterated that Bevin had told him he would sign the bill if it comes to his desk, and said he would be shocked if he didn’t.

When presenting the bill to the Senate, Alvarado, a Winchester physician, said that 8,900 Kentuckians die every year from smoking; and that tobacco-related illnesses cost Kentucky nearly $2 billion each year, including nearly $600 million in Medicaid expenses.

“It’s time for Kentucky to step up to the plate and protect its children,” said Alvarado. “Let’s get our children healthier. Let’s save taxpayer money. Let’s save Kentucky lives.” The bill would take effect July 1, 2020.

Rep. Kim Moser

The Senate passed House Bill 11, sponsored by Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, by a 28-10 vote. It had passed the House 85-11, but not until two amendments were added to appease concerns about state-government overreach. One would give school boards three years to opt out of the ban; the other would allow adults to smoke on field trips or events off school property events if students are not present.

Even with the amendments, Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, called the bill “the very definition of government overreach” and said it was “what some people would call a nanny state.” He argued that the bill wasn’t necessary because school boards already have the authority to pass such policies.

“We as conservative Republicans have no business dictating to local communities on matters such as this,” he said. The bill leaves enforcement up to local school boards.

Only 42 percent of Kentucky school districts have 100 percent tobacco-free policies, covering 57 percent of the state’s students, and many of them have not updated their policy to meet new standards for electronic cigarettes, which have become a real problem in Kentucky schools.

Federal research showed a 78 percent increase in “vaping” among high school students and a 48 percent among middle schoolers in the last year alone. And though state-level data hasn’t been released, focus groups led by Kentucky Youth Advocates showed a similar uptick in the state.

Alvarado also pointed to the rise in e-cigarette use among teens as a reason to pass the bill. He said that teens have no idea that one Juul pod has the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, and that some kids are going through eight pods a day. The Juul products are the most popular among teens because they look like oversized flash drives, come in flavors and are easy to hide.

“We’re creating an entire new generation of addicts when it comes to nicotine,” Alvarado said.

Speaking in favor of the bill, Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, called it a “good start” toward improving smoking rates in the state, which he said were among the worst in the nation. This is true for both adults and teens in the state.

In Kentucky, 14.3 percent of high-school students smoke, compared to 8.8 percent nationally.  Almost as many, 14.1 percent,  use e-cigarettes, a bit above the 13.2 percent nationally, according to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. That said, health experts have warned that e-cigarette figures are probably higher now because Juul sales have surged since the survey.

Thomas also pushed back against the government overreach argument, pointing to two school-related bills that passed this session, one to mandate the last Wednesday in September of each year as a day of prayer for Kentucky’s students and another to require schools to display “In God We Trust.” He said to applause from the gallery, “We are always for local control until we are against it.”

Speaking in favor of the bill, Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Paducah, said that even though it had some flaws, “Anything that we can do to decrease smoking in our state to save lives is a vote worth taking.”

Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, who voted no, said he thought passing a bill to raise the age to purchase tobacco to 21, like the one that had failed to get out of his committee this session, would have been a better way to deal with this issue.

Moser, who was in the Senate chamber when the bill passed, said, “This is just a great step in the right direction for Kentucky students.”

Bonnie Hackbarth, vice-president for external affairs with the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said that the bill’s passage means that about 275,000 more Kentucky students will be covered by tobacco-free school policies. The bill w touldake effect July 1, 2020.

“That’s a huge win for the health of Kentucky and the health of Kentucky kids,” she said. “It is going to reduce youth initiation and ultimately smoking rates in Kentucky”

“Tobacco conversations in Kentucky are complex and bring lots of pressures on our elected leaders, and that is why House Bill 11 is such a profound win for Kentucky’s kids,” Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said in a news release.

He added, “Prohibiting tobacco use on school campuses creates an environment where smoking cigarettes and e-cigs is not the norm, provides positive adult role modeling, and protects students, staff, and visitors from the harms of secondhand exposure.”

Alvarado called the passage of the bill “the beginning of a gradual culture change that needs to happen.”

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