Foundation plans to be more active against tobacco, since it’s the cause of so many of Kentucky’s health problems

As more Kentuckians favor a statewide smoking ban but the state legislature won’t even ban smoking at schools, the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky says it may become more active in lobbying against tobacco and for tobacco taxes because of the damage it does to the state’s health.

Ben Chandler

Yetter reports, “Chandler said the health costs of smoking are so huge for Kentucky – about $1.9 billion a year – that the foundation can no longer sit back and let other advocates lobby for changes meant to reduce smoking or improve public health, including a smoke-free law and cigarette tax hike.”We are looking at the possibility of really getting involved in a big way,” foundation President and CEO Ben Chandler told Deborah Yetter of The Courier-Journal. “It’s just a hugely expensive problem we’ve got that badly affects the health of our people.”

The human toll of smoking is deadly in a state with the highest rate of cancer deaths, many linked to smoking, he said.”

Chandler noted that an estimated 8,900 Kentuckians die each year from smoking-related causes, more than 10 times as many as die from traffic accidents. “With tobacco, it’s a slow process,” he said.

The latest Kentucky Health Issues Poll, co-sponsored by the foundation, found that a record 71 percent of Kentucky adults support a statewide smoking ban and only 25 percent oppose it.

The foundation has done relatively little lobbying, because of its nonprofit, tax-exempt status, but it can spend 15 percent of its annual budget on lobbying and stay within federal guidelines.

Chandler said it is ready to support an increase of at least $1 in Kentucky’s 60-cents-a-pack cigarette tax. Such an increase would still leave the state short of the national average of $1.69.

The Republican-controlled legislature would normally be unlikely to entertain the idea of such a large tax hike, but Chandler suggested that it could become part of the legislative debate over tax reform, which Gov. Matt Bevin has indicated he wants to consider in a special session, along with shoring up funding of the state’s pension systems.

In 2015, when the House was controlled by Democrats, it passed a statewide smoking ban, but the Senate never considered it. Later that year voters elected Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican who says control of smoking is an issue for local governments, not the state. This year the Senate passed a ban on smoking at schools and school functions, but the bill didn’t get a hearing in the House.

Chandler told Kentucky Health News that in addition to advocating such smoke-free measures, the foundation also expects to become more active at the local level, by urging officials to enact or strengthen smoking bans.

The foundation was created in 2001 with the charitable assets of the old Kentucky Blue Cross and Blue Shield mutual insurance company, now part of Anthem Inc. “Chandler, who was Kentucky attorney general at the time and helped create the foundation, said its assets are worth about $52 million,” Yetter reports.

After losing the 2003 election for governor as the Democratic nominee, Chandler was elected to Congress from the 6th District, serving until his defeat by Republican Andy Barr in 2012. After a stint as executive director of the Kentucky Humanities Council, he became chief executive of the foundation Sept. 1.

“We want to have an impact on public policy,” he told Yetter. “We want to identify things that policymakers can do to get the people of Kentucky to be healthier.”