If Kentuckians want to quit smoking, we should help them. We should remove roadblocks that make it harder for them to get the treatment they need to quit. And we certainly should try to stop our youth from starting to smoke in the first place, so they’re not burdened with trying to overcome a deadly tobacco addiction later in life.
Two bills making their way through Kentucky’s legislature would go a long way toward accomplishing these goals. More importantly, the bills would help reduce the commonwealth’s nation-leading smoking rate, which contributes to our disturbingly high rates of death from both cancer and heart disease. And, they would reduce health-care costs for smoking-related diseases, which total $1.9 billion annually in our state. That’s an average of $428 out of every single Kentuckians’ pocket every single year.
More than a quarter of Kentucky adults still smoke, despite mountains of evidence that tobacco kills.
Most smokers start as youth or young adults, so the fact that nearly 17 percent of Kentucky teens already are smoking does not portend well for reducing the commonwealth’s adult smoking rate, or for improving our health. We simply must act.
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Not incidentally, Kentuckians die from cancer more often than people from any other state. Nationwide, nearly 29 percent of cancer deaths can be linked to smoking. So it shouldn’t be a shock that, while cancer deaths declined 20 percent from 1980 to 2014 in America as a whole, they rose significantly in many Kentucky counties during that same 35-year span. In fact, the rate of tracheal, bronchus and lung cancer nearly doubled in Owsley County.
Kentucky also has the highest rate of adult asthma in the nation, the second highest rate of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and the seventh highest rate of heart disease mortality. Smoking contributes to each of these diseases as well.
Senate Bill 89
A 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that 70 percent of current smokers want to quit. But it’s hard, and many people simply can’t do it without help.
Senate Bill 89, sponsored by Sen. Ralph Alvarado, would require health-insurance plans offered in Kentucky to provide coverage for programs proven to help smokers quit for good; the bill also would prohibit insurers from setting up roadblocks that make it harder for Kentuckians to access these programs. The health benefits of quitting smoking are immediate, and the long-term improvements to Kentucky’s health from a reduced smoking rate would save billions in both insurance company expenditures and taxpayer dollars.
Senate Bill 78
As I travel around our beautiful state, many of the people I meet are surprised to learn that all Kentucky schools are not already tobacco free. But the truth is that nearly two-thirds of our school districts have yet to enact tobacco-free policies. That leaves about half of the school-age children and youth in our state unprotected from secondhand smoke during school and after-school activities. This exposure not only sets a bad example that encourages youth to smoke, it impairs students’ ability to learn and exacerbates the asthma suffered by 11 percent of Kentucky’s kids.
Tobacco-free laws reduce smoking rates; it’s that simple. Senate Bill 78, also sponsored by Alvarado, would require Kentucky schools to enact tobacco-free policies by the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.
Here’s something that may not surprise you: Kentucky adults overwhelmingly support 100 percent tobacco-free schools. So says our annual Kentucky Health Issues Poll. And support comes not just from nonsmokers and former smokers; even 80 percent of current smokers favor tobacco-free schools, the poll found.
Bills that reduce Kentucky’s smoking rate are disease-prevention bills. As residents of a state with some of the worst health statistics in the nation, I hope we can all do the right thing and get behind these two bills.
Ben Chandler is president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, a nonprofit, nonpartisan foundation that works to make Kentucky healthier.