No tobacco products could be used on any public school property or at any school-sponsored activity in Kentucky under a bill being pushed by a Republican state senator who is a medical doctor.
State Sen. Ralph Alvarado of Winchester said he would prefer a statewide smoking ban in public places, but legislative support for that is doubtful. That idea has not advanced in previous lawmaking sessions.
Instead, Alvarado and Senate Health and Welfare Chairwoman Julie Raque Adams of Louisville are backing this year’s Senate Bill 78.
“It’s the first time to be presented to the legislature, but we are optimistic that it will become law,” said Alvarado.
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The bill would prohibit use of tobacco products by students, school employees and visitors in schools and school vehicles and at school-sponsored activities, beginning no later than the 2018-19 school year.
It also would require that signs be posted at schools, declaring them smoke-free areas.
“This is an important step in reducing our highest-in-the-nation youth smoking rate of 16.9 percent,” said Erica Palmer Smith, government relations director for the American Cancer Society in Lexington. “Everyone has the right to a healthy smoke-free area. That certainly should be the case in our schools.”
If smoking continues at the current rate among youth in this country, 5.6 million of Americans younger than 18 will die early from a smoking-related illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
That’s about 1 of every 13 Americans aged 17 or younger today.
16.9% Kentucky’s highest-in-the-nation youth smoking rate
The CDC said nearly nine out of 10 cigarette smokers first tried smoking by age 18, and 99 percent first tried smoking by age 26.
Each day in the United States, according to the CDC, more than 3,200 youths 18 years or younger smoke their first cigarette, and an additional 2,100 youth and young adults become daily cigarette smokers.
The CDC noted that cigarette smoking has declined among U.S. youth in recent years, but the use of some other tobacco products has increased, especially with electronic cigarettes and hookahs.
Alvarado said he knows no formal opposition against his bill to ban all tobacco products from schools, but he is going to make a change in it to please school officials.
His initial bill outlined punishments for violating the measure, ranging from suspensions and expulsions to a public offense action.
Brad Hughes, a spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said “some superintendents have said they do not want to be tobacco police.”
The Kentucky School Boards Association has not yet taken a position on the bill, Hughes said, and about 70 of Kentucky’s 173 school district already voluntarily prohibit tobacco products on school property and all limit smoking.
He said, however, that the policy varies from school district to school district. For example, he said, a district might not allow use of tobacco products on school property but might not enforce the policy at an outside football game.
Alvarado said his bill would ban tobacco use at all school events, but he will leave it up to school boards to set the penalties.
“Some school officials got heartburn over my original bill,” he said. “They want local control by school boards as much as possible. I’ll negotiate with them on that, but we will police every school district. The goal is to see the reduction of the youth smoking rate in Kentucky. Most people who smoke start in their teen years because of peer pressure. They dramatically shorten their lifespan.”
Tom Shelton, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, said his group does not oppose bill, but is “working with the sponsor currently and continuing to review the bill with the proposed changes to determine our level of support.”
The proposal has the strong support of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
“We very much wanted a smoke-free Kentucky law, but if we can’t get that, making tobacco products off-limits on school property is a good step,” said Ashli Watts, vice president of public affairs for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
Altria Group Inc., one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of tobacco and the parent company of Philip Morris USA, is “monitoring” Alvarado’s bill and does not advocate youth smoking, spokesman David Sutton said in Richmond, Va.
“Our view is that kids should not smoke or use tobacco products. As manufacturers of products intended for adults, Altria’s tobacco companies have an important role to play in preventing underage tobacco use,” Sutton said in an email. “We agree that there are places where smoking should not be permitted, such as schools and day-care facilities. We also support restrictions on the use of e-cigarettes in schools and other places meant for children. We are aware of Kentucky SB 78 and are monitoring the bill.”
Gov. Matt Bevin’s press office and the Kentucky Education Association did not respond to requests for comments on Alvarado’s bill.
Tobacco use* among high school students nationally in 2015
Any tobacco product: 25.3%
Electronic cigarettes: 16.0%
Smokeless tobacco: 6.0%
Tobacco use* among middle school students nationally in 2015
Any tobacco product: 7.4%
Electronic cigarettes: 5.3%
Smokeless tobacco: 1.6%
* “Use” means having used a tobacco product at least one day during the last 30 days.
SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention