By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News
Only five of Kentucky’s 172 school districts have not passed a tobacco-free policy to line up with a state law that went into effect July 2020, according to the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.
The law, for which the foundation campaigned, bans use of all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, on school-owned property and school-sponsored events in all public schools. It includes an opt-out provision that allows school boards three years to opt out of the ban, which is why five school districts don’t have it.
“Our goal was not only to encourage more school districts to adopt tobacco-free campus policies, but to help change the culture of Kentucky’s school environment to a place where tobacco use is simply not the norm, no matter what time, what day of the week, or what event is happening on campus,” Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the foundation, said in a news release.
The districts that have opted out are in Union, Clay, Leslie, Knott and Bell counties. The two independent districts in Bell County, Pineville and Middlesboro, adopted the tobacco-free policy after the law was passed.
When the bill became law on April 9, 2019, only 74 of the 172 districts, or 42%, were fully tobacco-free. Now 97% are.
Bonnie Hackbarth, the foundation’s vice-president for external affairs, told Kentucky Health News that the foundation is trying to work with the five holdouts and encourage them to pass tobacco-free policies. “Our hope is that they will do so soon,” she said. “Going from 42% to 97% is a huge victory, but we definitely don’t want to leave out those students in those five counties that remain and so we just encourage them to look at the benefits of making tobacco use not the norm on campus.”
Hackbarth said the most common reason they get for not yet passing the policy is that school districts say they need to give the adults in their communities time to get used to the idea of not being able to smoke at events where they’ve always smoked, like football games.
“But it’s what’s right for our kids,” she said. “And it improves the health of everyone by reducing exposure to tobacco. The research shows these policies work.”
The law also requires schools to post signs, but provided no money for the signage. To help with this, the health foundation, the Kentucky Medical Association and the Kentucky Foundation for Medical Care created signs in consultation with the Kentucky School Boards Association and gave them away for free.
As a result of this effort, schools in 101 districts and 51 state operated technology centers across Kentucky are now displaying a total of nearly 12,000 metal signs and window or door stickers announcing that their campuses are tobacco-free, according to the release.
The schools and centers were also provided with more than 20,000 small cards with a reminder of the new tobacco-free campus policy that districts could hand out in car pool lines and at school events.
“We know that tobacco-free laws work by reducing not only the number of users, but by reducing the effects of secondhand smoke as well,” said KMA President Dr. Dale Toney. “These new signs will help improve compliance with the new policy and prevent thousands of Kentucky youth from becoming addicted to tobacco products. We’re excited that our communities will become healthier as a result of this initiative.”
KFMC President Shawn Jones noted that while fewer teens are smoking traditional cigarettes, there has been a sharp uptick in new users of e-cigarettes. Jones said he hopes the increase in schools with tobacco-free policies and the signage will help curb this uptick.
According to the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, which has the latest Kentucky data available, 26.1% of high schoolers in the state said they currently used e-cigarettes, meaning they vaped at least one day in the month prior to the survey; 11.1% vaped on 20 or more days prior to the survey; and 8.7% of them vaped daily. As for cigarettes, the survey found that 8.9% of high school students currently smoke cigarettes; 3% smoked cigarettes on 20 or more days in the month prior to the survey; and 2.2% of them said they smoked daily.
The 2019 survey found that 17.3% of Kentucky’s middle-school students used e-cigarettes or similar products; 2% of them vaped on 20 or more days prior to the survey; and 1.2% of them vaped daily. As for cigarettes, 4.3% currently smoke them; 0.6% smoked cigarettes on 20 or more days in the month prior to the survey; and 0.6% of them smoked cigarettes daily.