Smoke-free schools can save Kentucky lives

A child receives a treatment for asthma, a leading reason Kentucky students miss school.
A child receives a treatment for asthma, a leading reason Kentucky students miss school. Associated Press

Never underestimate Kentuckians’ ability to rationalize the indefensible when it comes to tobacco.

We’ve known conclusively for almost 25 years that secondhand tobacco smoke harms the respiratory health of children and causes cancer in nonsmokers. Yet almost half of Kentucky’s public-school students can still be exposed to secondhand smoke on a school trip or at a football game or even walking in and out of their school buildings.

Exposure to secondhand smoke triggers asthma attacks, one of the main causes of absenteeism. Asthma-related absences cost Kentucky school districts $10 million a year.

Nonetheless, only 62 of the state’s 173 districts have 100 percent tobacco-free policies. Those tobacco-free districts, including Fayette County Public Schools, educate 52 percent of the state’s students.

The state Senate last week took a long overdue step to protect the rest of Kentucky’s youngsters by approving Senate Bill 78. It would make all public schools tobacco free. The bill prohibits tobacco use, including e-cigarette use, on school property, in school vehicles and during all school activities. Local school boards would have until 2018-19 to write and enforce comprehensive tobacco-free policies.

There’s nothing unreasonable or unusual about this legislation. The tobacco state of North Carolina has had a law mandating 100 percent tobacco-free schools since 2008.

Kentucky, where 17 percent of high-school students smoke and lung cancer claims a larger percent of the population than in any other state, owes its kids nothing less. Schools have a vital role to play in saving Kentuckians from becoming addicted to tobacco, in part by giving kids role models who don’t smoke. At least one study found that strictly enforced school smoke-free policies can reduce youth smoking by 30 percent.

And, yet, SB 78, sponsored by Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, was not a slam dunk. Eight senators, including Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, voted against smoke-free schools. Two senators passed and three did not vote.

Among the rationalizations, Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, objected that even adults working at the school-bus garage would be affected — as if adults do not deserve protection from secondhand smoke and as if taxpayers don’t pay the smoking-related health-care costs of school employees.

Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, lamented the bill could interfere with chaperones on FFA trips dipping snuff in their hotel rooms. Sen. Johnny Ray Turner, D-Prestonsburg, worried about lost ticket sales at high-school sports events.

Any lost revenue from smokers boycotting high school sports would be many, many times offset by savings from less sickness. Smoking-related health-care costs in Kentucky are almost $2 billion a year, including $590 million in Medicaid costs, shouldered directly by taxpayers. Lost productivity from smoking in Kentucky is $2.8 billion a year.

Twenty-five senators (including both of Lexington’s) voted for SB 78, sending it to the House, where a companion, House Bill 247, also is awaiting action.

Kentucky’s kids are Kentucky’s future. The House should overcome the deadly rationalizations of the past and support 100 percent tobacco-free schools to give Kentucky a healthier, more prosperous future.