Rep. Kim Moser
This is an updated version of a story that was first published Saturday, March 2.
By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News
FRANKFORT, Ky. — The sponsor of a bill to ban the use of tobacco at public schools and their events has a last-ditch compromise that she hopes will appease lawmakers fearful of government overreach.
The amendment, filed Monday, would allow local school boards to opt out of the ban. That provision would expire three years after the law takes effect in 2020.
“If this will satisfy some of the folks who have an issue with it, I just wanted to allow for those votes,” said Rep. Kim Moser, the sponsor of House Bill 11. It passed unanimously out of the House health committee, which she chairs, but has been sitting on the House calendar since Feb. 11.
Moser said she hasn’t lobbied for the amendment yet, but is hopeful that allowing more local control will get it called up for a vote. “There was an argument that it took the local option away and this gives them that option back,” she said. “If they do not want to have this provision in their schools they don’t have to.”
The Republican from Taylor Mill in Northern Kentucky added, “I still think it is an important message that we send to all school children in Kentucky that schools are tobacco-free. That’s really the point of the whole bill.”
Several other floor amendments have been filed on the bill. One by Rep. R. Travis Brenda, R-Cartersville, would allow adults to use tobacco products at schools when students are not present.
Brenda said he was uncertain about Moser’s amendment, particularly because it would also add electronic cigarettes to the existing law that bans smoking by adults on school property when children are present, unless they do it in a designated smoking room. Brenda said last week that officials in the Rockcastle County Schools, where he teaches, have concerns about enforcing the ban against employees when students aren’t present.
Brenda said he does not use tobacco products and has a father with a cancer caused by long-term tobacco use. He said it’s important to protect students from tobacco, but it’s also important to allow adults, out of the presence of students, to be able to make those decisions for themselves.
Moser has said the main obstacle may be that the bill has more votes among the House’s 39 Democrats than among its 61 Republicans, or lacks a majority of the Republicans. House Majority Floor Leader Bam Carney, who calls bills from the calendar, was asked Thursday if he calls them only if they have support from most Republicans.
“I wouldn’t say that’s a policy, but anytime you want to move a piece of legislation, you would want to have a unified caucus as much as possible and again, on this particular issue, the local control issue is the part that’s being discussed,” said Carney, R-Campbellsville. He said the five House Republican leaders were still trying “to get some more unity on it in our caucus.”
He added, “I think in concept, everybody agrees with it. Some members side with local control, others want it statewide.” Only 42 percent of the state’s school districts have tobacco-free policies, affecting just over half the state’s students.
Tobacco’s influence remains strong
At a rally for the bill last week, Moser said getting it passed has been a “heavy lift” even though “at face value” tobacco companies have said they have no intention of marketing their products to children and have been “pretty neutral” on it.
“We have a lot of tobacco farmers here in Kentucky, and so there is still a lot of misgivings about limiting any sort of tobacco,” she said. “We are working on educating folks so hopefully we can get some movement.”
Fewer than 4,000 tobacco farmers remain in Kentucky, but the state has a strong tobacco heritage, and that was made loud and clear Feb. 25 at the Senate Agriculture Committee, which voted 4-6 against a bill to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21.
“Where I come from, tobacco is still king,” said Republican Sen. Stan Humphries, a Trigg County tobacco farmer who voted against Senate Bill 249, sponsored by Sen. Steve Meredith, R-Leitchfield.
Meredith has since filed a version of SB 249, applying only to electronic cigarettes, as a floor amendment to another bill that is pending in the Senate. The committee chair, Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, has filed amendments that would make 21 the legal age for buying any tobacco product, including e-cigarettes.
The amendments were filed to Senate Bill 218, sponsored by Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, which 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.
UPDATE, March 5: The Senate passed Smith’s bill without amendments.
Smith’s bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee after a group of students from Johnson County Middle School told lawmakers that the nicotine addiction caused by e-cigarettes is so bad in their school that many students have to go to the bathroom every two hours to vape and that others are bullied for speaking out against it.
One pod for the most popular e-cigarette among teens, made by Juul Labs, has as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes. After the students spoke, Meredith announced his plan for a floor amendment to ban sales of e-cigs to those under 21. “If you can’t get the whole pie I’ll settle for half the pie,” he said. “This is a good start.”
But some health advocates disagree. A press release from the health foundation listed eight organizations that want to revive Meredith’s original bill to raise the legal age to purchase all tobacco products to 21. They also seek modifications to the bill, including one to remove the penalties for young buyers, which they say have not proven to be effective in curbing use.
Health advocates look at the hangup with tobacco bills and wonder about the influence of Altria Group, parent of Philip Morris, which sent a vice president to Frankfort to get the “Tobacco 21” bill passed.
It is unclear what Altria might think of Meredith’s amendment to raise the legal age for buying e-cigarettes. Altria is buying a 35 percent of Juul Labs, regularly reports spending more money than any other lobbying interest at the legislature, and in October gave $100,000 to the state Republican Party’s building fund.
Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, told WKU Public Radio, “The tobacco companies have outsized influence in Frankfort still.” He told Kentucky Health News that the influence of the tobacco lobby on the tobacco-free school bill remains uncertain.
“We don’t know what the tobacco companies are doing and what they are behind,” he said. “We think that one of the impediments is that the members don’t want to vote for more than one tobacco bill.”
Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.