Bill to make all Ky. schools tobacco-free is likely dead for this session; only 62 of the state’s 173 school districts ban tobacco

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

FRANKFORT, Ky. — A bill that would ban tobacco use on school properties and at school events has all but died in the state House, despite its quick passage in the Senate and polling that says Kentuckians would support such a mandate.

“We are probably not going to do that this session. . . . unless there is a change of direction in the caucus, we are probably not going to do that,” House Speaker Jeff Hoover said. “There is just not enough support in the caucus right now to do it.”

Senate Bill 78 would prohibit the use of tobacco products by students, school personnel, and visitors in schools, school vehicles, properties, and activities, allowing schools one year to adopt, implement and enforce the policy. Just over half of Kentucky’s public-school students are in school districts with tobacco-free policies: 62 of the state’s 173 districts, covering 654 schools.

The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Education Committee and passed the Senate 25-8, with two members passing. It now resides in the House Education Committee.

The committee chair, Rep. John “Bam” Carney, R-Campbellsville, said he supports the bill, but the decision to put it on his committee agenda or not depends on leaders of the House’s Republican majority, who determine the “pulse” of the caucus on the issue.

“Personally, I would be glad to hear it,” Carney said. “It is certainly something that I would probably vote for.”

Majority Floor Leader Johnathan Shell, R-Lancaster, said the bill isn’t a priority.  “We have got so many more important bills that have been coming in and out,” he said. “We are just trying to make sure that we are getting everything through the process that we can.”

Freshman Rep. C. Wesley Morgan, R-Richmond, concurred with Shell, saying he thought the bill was probably being held up “because there has been a lot of substantial bills related to a lot of things that have been held up for a long time that have really high priority.”

Sen. Ralph Alvarado

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, said Kentucky is missing out on an opportunity to decrease youth smoking — which would save lives in future generations — and to decrease the cost of health care in the future.

“I think reducing the youth smoking rate would be the biggest long term investment for us, but it has got to start at some point,” he said. Research shows that strictly enforced tobacco-free school policies can reduce youth smoking by 30 percent.

Kentucky’s high-school students smoke at a higher rate than the national average, 17 percent compared to 15 percent; and 24 percent of them use electronic cigarettes, according to the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The survey also found that 22.5 percent of the state’s middle-school students have tried smoking.

Morgan, a former smoker, said he would support such a bill, and had been approached by supporters of the bill, but no one had lobbied him against it.

Rep. Kim P. Moser, R-Walton, who is carrying the bill for Alvarado in the House, also said she had not heard of anyone lobbying against it.

Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, also a former smoker, said he wasn’t familiar with the bill, but noted that resistance to bills that restrict tobacco use in Kentucky was often cultural.

“The struggle I have is that I grew up on a tobacco farm. It put food on the table and clothes on my back. . . . I still have that issue that it is a free and legal product, ” he said. “I would say probably that the real reason that it is not moving is that it is cultural.”

Alvarado, a physician, said he thought one of the reasons the bill has been held up in the House is because of a misconception that it says possession of tobacco products on school grounds would be a violation of the law. That is not true, he said: “If you are consuming tobacco products, that is where it would become an issue on campus.”

Alvarado said he was hanging onto a “slim hope” that the bill could be called up in the House. Legislators have two days left in this short session, March 14 and 15, to pass laws without subjecting them to a veto by the governor that wouldn’t be overridden.

He called the bill “low-hanging fruit.” It does seem to be politically popular, since 85 percent of Kentuckians support tobacco-free schools, according to the 2016 Kentucky Health Issues Poll.

Another tobacco bill: Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, has filed a tobacco related bill, Senate Bill 89, that would require all insurance policies sold in Kentucky to cover all smoking-cessation medications and counseling approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, eliminating many current barriers to treatment, like co-payments and prior authorization. This bill passed 35-2 in the Senate, passed favorably out of its House committee and is awaiting action in the full House.

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