The use of tobacco products, including traditional and electronic cigarettes, would be prohibited on school campuses in Kentucky under legislation being pitched to the Kentucky General Assembly this session.
State Rep. Kimberly Moser and Sen. Ralph Alvarado each filed bills to prohibit the use of the products by anyone, including students, school employees and volunteers, on school property and in school vehicles. The bills also would apply during school-related trips and student activities.
“We have such a high rate of tobacco-related illnesses,” particularly lung cancer, said Moser, a Northern Kentucky Republican. “I think that setting an example for kids and trying to prevent tobacco use in the first place is really what this is geared toward.”
In 2017, cigarette use among Kentucky’s high school students stood at 14.3 percent, slightly better than rock-bottom West Virginia, which had a rate of 14.4 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Calling Kentucky’s rate “abysmal,” Alvarado said, “We have to be able to at least get that turned around. … I think this is a good start.”
Tobacco users tend to get started before the age of 18, according to the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow, which includes such groups and organizations as the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, Humana and the Kentucky Health Departments Association.
“We can prevent up to 30 percent of Kentucky students from smoking by adopting 100 percent tobacco-free school policies and appropriately enforcing them,” the coalition notes. “Smoking-related illness costs Kentucky $1.92 billion every year in health care costs.”
Alvarado said the bills are commonsense legislation and predicted that if youth in the state use tobacco products less, “we’ll see our adult smoking rates go down as well.”
Federal law prohibits smoking inside schools that receive federal funding, but tobacco products could still be being used elsewhere on school grounds in some districts, according to the coalition.
“We’ve included our elementary schools, middle school(s), high school(s), to say that it can’t happen anywhere on campus,” said Alvarado, a Winchester Republican.
The coalition estimates that only about 42 percent of school districts, including the Jefferson County Public Schools, are 100 percent tobacco-free.
“That’s a whole lot of kids who are not covered by these policies, and we want to get the whole state covered,” said Ben Chandler, the coalition’s chairman and the chief executive of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. “… A lot of the small districts throughout the state — rural districts in particular — have not done it.”
School officials would have until July 1, 2020, to get policies in place prohibiting “any tobacco product, alternative nicotine product, or vapor product.”
“We’re trying to create new norms in Kentucky as it relates to health and the norm here needs to be that tobacco products have no business around our kids,” Chandler said. “… They’re susceptible to examples, as we all know, and we want examples of not using tobacco to be in front of them.”
Electronic cigarettes have grown increasingly popular with young people. And they are “just another avenue to addict folks to nicotine,” Moser said. “It is not a harmless product.”
In 2017, a smoke-free schools bill was passed in the Senate but didn’t make it out of the House.
The new legislation has been tweaked to focus on use instead of possession.
“We feel much more encouraged this time” for various reasons, including having two strong sponsors and the support of the Kentucky School Boards Association, Chandler said.
“We are strongly in support of that legislation this year,” said Eric Kennedy of the association, which is part of the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow.
The association considered things like the abundance of school districts that already have tobacco-free policies in place that seemingly are working well and a reported surge in vaping among youths.
“What we’re trying to do is really prevent students from even seeing the use, which is where you have the deterrent factor,” said Kennedy, the association’s director of governmental relations. But “we didn’t want to overly prohibit even the possession of a product by an adult, either in their purse or out in a car in a parking lot where a student wouldn’t see it.”
Kennedy said the association hasn’t seen attendance at activities like ballgames be affected by tobacco-free policies.
Alvarado said he’s hoping the House will take up the proposal and that there will be enough support for it. If Moser “can get it passed in the House, then I think the Senate will probably follow suit and go ahead and get it done.”
This post has been updated