Statewide smoking ban may get floor vote in House in 2015, but path in Senate less certain

12/17/2014 06:12 PM

FRANKFORT –- Advocates for a statewide smoking ban inside public buildings appealed to lawmakers’ pocketbooks and their awareness of Kentucky’s dismal health rankings Wednesday during an Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare meeting.

But while the proposal’s prospects seem brighter in the House after Democratic leaders in the chamber declined to bring last year’s bill to a floor vote, familiar concerns of local control versus broad government regulation could stymie progress in the GOP-led Senate.

Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, and Sen.-elect Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, will sponsor versions of a statewide smoking ban in their respective chambers once next year’s 30-day session begins Jan. 6. On Wednesday, they brought Brent Cooper, president of Covington-based C-Forward, and Wayne Meriwether, chief executive officer of Leitchfield-based Twin Lakes Regional Medical Center, to solidify their arguments in preparation for next year’s short session.

Cooper said his business’s health insurance premiums jumped 30 percent recently due to the state’s poor collective health. Kentucky ranks highest in the U.S. for smoking and cancer rates and is near the bottom in terms of overall health, he said, adding the main reason to support a statewide smoking ban is that it will help save lives without raising taxes.

There’s also a financial benefit of fewer Kentuckians picking up the habit, Meriwether said. The tax burden on smoking-related expenses totals $988 million while tobacco use is linked to $1.9 billion in annual health care costs, with $106 million of that sum the result of exposure to secondhand smoke. Tobacco-related Medicaid expenses cost the state $487 million, a figure that will only climb with the state’s expansion of the health care program for low-income residents, he said.

“Put this in perspective — this is before the expansion of Medicaid, so where’s this $487 million going? It’s going to go nowhere but up because we have got so many more people enrolled in Medicaid,” Meriwether told lawmakers.

Those amounts should prod the General Assembly to pass a statewide smoking ban, said Adams, who will chair the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare.

“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 who says it’s not conservative, I submit to you that saving taxpayer dollars is one of the most conservative things that we can do as members of the General Assembly.”

Adams told reporters after the meeting she had not broached the topic with Senate Republican leaders, instead waiting until she’s formally sworn in to discuss her bill with leadership. She has, however, tried to solicit some support among her GOP colleagues.

“We just finished up a caucus retreat in Owensboro, and I did have a few conversations with some people,” she said. “You know, going into a new chamber I was unsure as to where some people were, so I’m having some private conversations.”

While many on the interim committee voiced their support for a statewide smoking ban, a pair of GOP senators expressed some concerns that could portend rough waters for the legislation in 2015.

Incoming Senate Majority Whip Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, said he supported leaving the issue to local governments, and Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, said at this point he would vote for a statewide smoking ban if one comes to a floor vote, but he also preferred allowing municipalities to decide whether to go smoke-free.

He said he’s happy with the results of Owensboro’s decision to ban smoking indoors, “but we did it on our own.”

“What’s frustrating is the fact that the same communities that clamor for LIFT (local-option sales taxes), that clamor for home rule, that want Frankfort out of their lives, that think we, you know, decree too much on them, and yet they won’t step up and take action on this very critical issue,” Bowen said. “And that’s frustrating because it’s contradictory. It’s contradictory in so many cases for so many communities across the state.”

Senate President Robert Stivers, in a statement to Pure Politics, said those views are shared by others in the Senate.

“Sen.-elect Julie Adams has been very upfront concerning her support and sponsorship of a statewide smoking ban and she makes some good points; however, other senators voiced concern that this is a local issue for communities to address and enforce rather than having the state take on another regulatory role at this time,” said Stivers, R-Manchester.

“So I see this as one of the issues this session that is going to have to go through the legislative process of discussion and debate and we will see where it goes from there.”

Westrom, who blamed House Democratic leaders for spiking a similar bill last year, said she has already begun leaning on leadership in her fifth push for a statewide smoking ban. Had last year’s bill come to a floor vote, Westrom believes it would have passed, though she declined to give a margin.

“Actually I did send them (Democratic leaders) a memo last week, and I will be visiting with all of them personally before session, and then of course we’ve got leadership races,” Westrom told Pure Politics after the committee meeting.

This year may actually produce a floor vote on the legislation. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, reiterated his support for a statewide smoking ban through his spokesman and said “it may be time for an up-or-down vote” in the House.

Whether the General Assembly passes a statewide smoking ban remains to be seen, but Westrom can already see a shift in attitudes on the subject.

“You may not have sensed it, but there was a real change in the committee today,” Westrom said. “There were people who spoke in favor of this issue that have not done that publicly before, which is very encouraging to me, and I think we have finally come to the place where we have to face the fact that we’ve had budget deficits, problems year after year after year.

“Smoke-free Kentucky can make a difference in health care costs. Why have we not dealt with it? We’ve already seen in 11 years the local communities have not chosen to address it except for 27 or 30. That speaks very plainly to me that it needs to be done at the state level.”


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