FRANKFORT — Could 2015 be the year a statewide smoking ban finally passes? With both House and Senate committee chairs ready to sign onto the ban, and a growing popularity among Kentuckians, the prospects are looking better than ever.
For the fifth consecutive year, state Rep. Susan Westrom is sponsoring legislation that bans smoking in indoor public places throughout Kentucky.
Last year Westrom, a Lexington Democrat, sponsored a bill that got closer to passage than any smoking ban before, and received promising fanfare from House Democrats during the early days of the 2014 session. But as the reservations of eastern Kentucky representatives became more apparent, support for the bill waned. Eventually, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Prestonsburg Democrat, told reporters that the private vote count was too low to bring the bill to the floor.
On the other end of the statehouse, Republicans have traditionally chafed at the notion of a state mandate on private businesses. Sen. President Robert Stivers, a Manchester Republican, has opposed the ban in both 2013 and 2014 on those grounds.
This year, however, under the auspices of positive public polling and all-time lows in the number of smokers, Westrom rallied bipartisan support during a joint Health and Welfare Committee meeting Wednesday for the bill.
State Sen. Joe Bowen supports the ban, but the Owensboro Republican said he is frustrated with the process.
“All of these compelling, compassion-filled presentations should have been at City Hall. They should have been at fiscal court. They should have been done at the local level,” said Bowen.
“When local communities cop out on this and turn to Frankfort, turn to big brother to make a decision that they should be making at the local level, it’s frustrating for me.”
Kentucky is the second-largest tobacco producer of in the U.S., but the state is also ranked first in lung cancer rates and second for heart disease, both are conditions linked to smoking. And while Kentucky leads the nation with 30 percent of the population smoking, a record 65 percent of Kentuckians support the ban, adding to the growing pressure on Republicans to act.
In the coming session, Republican state Senator-elect Julie Raque Adams, of Louisville, is slated to chair the Senate-side Health and Welfare Committee, and will be sponsoring the legislation in the chamber. In the committee meeting, she said it’s time for the statehouse to take the lead on this issue.
“These numbers are too dramatic,” she said. “They call for leadership on this level, not on the local level. We need to grasp this while we can. And for anybody that say this is not conservative, I submit to you that saving taxpayer dollars is one of the most conservative things we can do.”
Adams is currently finishing her term in the state House of Representatives before taking the seat of Sen. Julie Denton. Denton chairs the Senate-side Health and Welfare Committee, and did not mince words during Wednesday’s meeting.
“It does distress me that people want to make this a personal liberty, or local level, issue,” said Denton.
“When I got out to a venue or to the Derby and I see people light up, it makes me want to spit in their drink. So far, I haven’t.”
Wayne Meriwether, chief executive officer of Twin Lakes Regional Medical Center, presented his anti-smoking arguments to the committee while hoisting a tobacco setting peg in the air.
“I don’t come before you today not realizing the importance of tobacco to our economy,” he said, recalling his family’s tobacco farming, and the days when doctors could smoke in hospitals.
“But things are done differently now—950 people in Kentucky die each year from secondhand smoke, 65 percent of Kentuckians are in favor of, supporting, a smoke-free law. Here’s the cost associated with it: Annual healthcare expenditures in the state directly caused by tobacco use are $1.92 billion a year.”
The General Assembly’s 2015 session begins on Jan. 6.
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