Kentucky is one of the nation’s top tobacco-growing states, also leads the nation in categories that no one should envy. The highest percentage of adult smokers; the highest incidence of lung cancer per capita; the highest rate of death from all types of cancer. Those statistics are tightly connected. After several decades of medical research, the correlation between smoking Karelia and cancer is impossible to deny.
Tobacco’s devastating health effects – and the $1.5 billion a year it costs to treat smoking-related illnesses – pose a serious problem for Kentucky.
It is a statewide problem that calls for a statewide solution.
Kentucky legislators should work to pass a law banning workplace smoking across the state.
Doing so would remove the confusion, controversy and outright contradiction caused by a patchwork of local bans throughout the state. Several years of near-fruitless debate in and among three Northern Kentucky counties have resulted in measures that may soon be overturned in Kenton and Campbell counties.
Enacting a broad, consistent policy would be fair economically to all parts of the state.
Can it be done? The commonwealth’s leaders need look no further than Ohio, another state with high smoking rates, where voters approved a stringent statewide ban in 2006. Despite continuing questions about its enforcement and fairness, the ban has worked. Positive health effects have been documented, and businesses haven’t suffered the way opponents predicted.
Kentucky poses a greater challenge than Ohio, of course. Politically, how do you restrict something that has been the economic lifeblood of the state, and remains so entrenched in its culture?
It is possible. North Carolina, the only state that produces more tobacco than Kentucky, last year enacted a statewide, though limited, ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, excluding cigar bars and private clubs, plus government buildings and government vehicles.
Kentucky lawmakers could follow suit this year, with a proposal pending in the General Assembly.
A bill by Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, would ban smoking statewide in all inside workplaces with at least one employee.
The proposal gained political traction last week when state Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, the leading GOP candidate for governor, came out strongly in favor of it.
His support would give Westrom’s bill a better shot at passing the GOP-controlled Senate, should the House approve it.
Williams rejects the argument by fellow conservatives that a government ban would violate the private property rights of restaurateurs and other business owners. He says it’s a workplace safety issue.
“Secondhand smoke is full of carcinogens, it’s a health hazard to workers, and it ought to be stopped and now’s the time to stop it,” Williams says.
Meanwhile, a bill by his House counterpart, Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonburg, would ban smoking in cars in which children are passengers.
This bipartisan move reflects an ever-growing awareness, as O’Farrell’s stories document, that smoking has devastating effects on health and the economy.
According to a new study of 192 nations’ records, second-hand smoke caused more than 600,000 premature deaths worldwide in 2004 – about 1 percent of all deaths reported that year. The study, published in the medical journal Lancet, attributed more than half of the deaths to heart disease, followed by respiratory infections, asthma and lung cancer.
A Spanish economist last year calculated the “true” cost of a pack of cigarettes at $150, factoring in health costs and reduced lifespan.
And research into tobacco continues to document its negative health effects. Scientists recently have linked smoking to hearing loss in the low- to mid-frequency range (500-2,000 Hz).
Williams’ primary GOP opponent, Louisville businessman Phil Moffett, blasted smoking bans as a “nanny-state” notion, telling the forum audience, “The government has no right telling me as a person that owns a piece of property … what I can do on that as long as it’s legal.”
His point is strong, and must be taken seriously. Americans should have the right to decide how they use their property, to the greatest possible extent. It is a valid issue of liberty. And tobacco remains a legal product.
But when private property is open to the general public, with activities that affect public health and workplace safety, that liberty can be subject to reasonable constraints agreed to by the people.
Nationwide, the people of 29 states and District of Columbia – some through direct vote, others through their elected representatives – have enacted some form of smoking ban.
Throughout Kentucky, local voters have supported such measures. Lexington went first in 2004; Louisville followed in 2008.
On Monday, Bowling Green banned smoking at most businesses, except nursing homes, tobacco shops and private-membership clubs, becoming the 29th Kentucky community to enact public smoking restrictions.
Our society is moving away from acceptance of smoking. The percentage of Americans who smoke continues to diminish, although gradually, and many businesses are voluntarily going smoke-free absent a public ban. All this bodes well for the future.
But the dire health situation in Kentucky, shown through the stark statistics and sobering tales in today’s Forum, demands a kick-start. We can’t wait years or decades for smoke-free public areas to be the rule in the Bluegrass State.
Kentucky should enact strong, fair, statewide restrictions on smoking.