Nation & World

Statewide tobacco and vaping ban at schools suddenly headed toward finish line

After weeks of inaction, a bill that would ban the use of tobacco and vaping products on Kentucky school campuses suddenly picked up speed Thursday en route to the finish line.

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee held an unexpected last-minute hearing to unanimously approve House Bill 11 and send it to the Senate floor for a vote on March 28, the final day of the legislative session.

“I think this brings us into the 21st century in terms of paying attention to the science. We (in Kentucky) spend $2 billion a year on tobacco-related illnesses,” said state Rep. Kimberly Moser, R-Taylor Mill, the sponsor.

The Senate passed a similar version of Moser’s bill in 2016, but it died in the House.

Moser said her bill apparently has found a reprieve this year because of alarm over the swift rise in vaping among teens as well as changes she agreed to make on the House floor Tuesday before that chamber approved the measure by a vote of 85-11.

Among those changes, school districts now would have the choice of opting out of a tobacco and vaping ban on their campuses during the first three years after the law takes effect. Ninety-nine of Kentucky’s 173 school districts do not presently ban the use of tobacco on campus, although state law does prohibit smoking for anyone under 18.

“There was concern with some rural members of our House about government overreach, so we wanted to give them that option to maybe make them feel more comfortable with it,” Moser said.

Bonnie Hackbarth, vice president of the nonprofit Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said her group would sponsor a promotional campaign for smoke-free schools, and it would go into communities considering an “opt out” vote to meet with school leaders and explain why they should leave the law in effect.

No senator spoke against the bill at Thursday’s hearing.

“We’re very excited, even if it’s late in the session, to put this forward and have a hearing on it,” said the committee chairman, Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester. “This is a step in the right direction, clearly. And with the epidemic we have of vaping in our schools — a whole new generation of addicts, unfortunately, coming out of our schools — it’s time to take some action.”

Other smoking-related legislation has not fared so well this session. Senate Bill 249, which would have raised the age for the sale of tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21, stalled in the Senate Agriculture Committee, where one lawmaker declared “tobacco is still king” in his district.

However, Senate Bill 218, which would require the state to establish an anonymous tip line to report vaping at schools and to educate students about the risks of vaping, is nearing final passage, like Moser’s bill. The House Health and Family Services Committee approved it Thursday and sent it to the House floor.