Give House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell credit for honesty, if not integrity. He shrugs off smoking’s intolerable toll on Kentucky because, as he told the Associated Press’ Adam Beam, tobacco “has bought and paid for everything (in) my life. My house, my education.”
Shell, 29, part of a Garrard County farm family, is following in the steps of Kentucky politicians before him who defended the tobacco industry on economic grounds, while it killed their constituents at the nation’s highest rate from cancer and one of the highest rates from heart disease.
Shell and other House leaders blocked a bill that would have made the grounds of Kentucky’s public schools smoke-free.
After clearing the Senate 25-8, smoke-free schools got not so much as a hearing in the House.
But Shell’s devotion to toxic air is putting him and the House at odds with Kentuckians. Support for a statewide smoke-free law has risen to 71 percent, up from 54 percent when the question was first asked in 2011, according to a recent poll. Opposition was down from 43 percent in 2011 to just 25 percent today.
Kentuckians — even 41 percent of smokers — favor prohibiting smoking in most public places, including workplaces, restaurants and bars. Democrats are more likely to favor such a law (76 percent) but 68 percent of Republicans voiced support when questioned by phone for the Kentucky Health Issues Poll, a random sample of 1,580 adults, sponsored by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. In every region, a smoke-free law garnered at least two-thirds support.
Bottom line: There is no political risk. The legislature could enact protections from the dangers of breathing secondhand smoke and voters would cheer.
A smoke-free law would be pro-business and has long had the support of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce which says such laws lower health care costs “without negatively affecting business.” The Chamber pegs Kentucky’s annual smoking-attributable health spending at more than $1.5 billion and economic productivity loss at $2.3 billion. Kentucky’s excessive smoking — usually the nation’s highest rate — is an undeniable drag on economic development.
Kentucky has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into agriculture over the past 20 years to help farmers transition from tobacco.
House Republicans increased the punishments for criminals who sell deadly drugs. But what’s legal also can be lethal. Tobacco use kills more than 8,000 Kentuckians a year, almost eight times as many as die from drug overdoses. That does not count deaths from exposure to someone else’s smoking.
Why, when the losses are so huge, do lawmakers still bow to tobacco?
Altria (the company formerly known as Philip Morris) has spent $573,000 since 2013 to lobby the legislature. It’s always one of the top spenders on lobbying our lawmakers.
In 2015, the House, under Democratic control, narrowly approved a smoke-free law, only to have it die in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Since Republicans took both chambers last year, there’s been much talk of a new day under the new majority. But there’s nothing new about Kentucky lawmakers who won’t see the light through the smoke.