Ky voices: James Sharp says secondhand smokes taking tragic toll on state, in dollars and lives

James Sharp is director of Kentucky Government Relations for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. Reach him at james.sharp@cancer.org.
James Sharp is director of Kentucky Government Relations for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. Reach him at james.sharp@cancer.org.

On Nov. 20, the American Cancer Society is celebrating the 39th Great American Smokeout. This is a great opportunity for tobacco users to set a date and make a plan to quit. Many Kentuckians use this date to take an important step toward a healthier life — one that can lead to reducing cancer risk.

It's equally important to mark this day by encouraging our leaders in the General Assembly to do the same; set a date and make a plan to quit exposing hardworking Kentuckians to secondhand smoke in the workplace. Nonsmokers who are exposed to high levels of tobacco smoke on the job double their risk of developing lung cancer and are at a greater risk for lung and heart disease.

The 2015 session of the Kentucky General Assembly is a perfect opportunity to protect the health of all Kentucky workers by passing a comprehensive, statewide, smoke-free workplace law. No more excuses.

We must focus on protecting the health of all Kentucky workers — from factory and office workers to waiters and waitresses, bartenders, bar wait staff and musicians who perform in smoke-filled environments.

These hard-working citizens are our friends, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. It is their right to breathe smoke-free air. They should not be exposed to secondhand smoke at work, and they should not be forced to choose between their health and a paycheck.

Nearly 1,000 nonsmoking Kentuckians die each year as a result of secondhand smoke exposure. Secondhand smoke is a deadly mix of more than 7,000 chemicals. According to the National Cancer Institute, there are 69 ingredients in secondhand smoke that are either known or are likely to cause cancer. Just some of the health problems attributed to secondhand smoke include lung cancer, heart disease, low birth-weight babies and chronic lung ailments such as bronchitis and asthma.

Not only will a comprehensive statewide smoke-free law save lives, but it will save money too.

With one of the highest adult smoking rates in the nation, Kentucky loses $1.92 billion in health care costs directly attributed to smoking each year. Of that, $487 million is paid through Medicaid taxpayers' dollars.

Lost productivity related to smoking results in $2.3 billion each year in Kentucky. By making their workplace smoke-free, employers increase work productivity, reduce absenteeism, and save on health, life and fire insurance premiums and workers' compensation payments.

Kentucky communities have done a great job passing local smoke-free ordinances. It is now time for the General Assembly to follow their lead and protect all of our citizens from secondhand smoke with a comprehensive statewide law.

With a new legislative session just around the corner, our elected leaders again have the opportunity to make employees throughout the state a priority and to prove that their health and well-being are critical to ensuring a sound bottom line in our commonwealth.

In 2015, a bipartisan bill will be reintroduced that will protect everyone's right to breathe smoke-free indoor air at work. On behalf of the volunteers of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy affiliate of the American Cancer Society, I urge our legislators to finally pass this important bill for the health and economic well-being of our great commonwealth.

Doesn't everyone who works hard to earn a living in Kentucky deserve to earn that living in a healthy, smoke-free workplace?