Advocate virtual forum discusses tobacco free policies

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – Kentucky Youth Advocates (KYA) is a Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky partner in efforts to reduce tobacco use in the Commonwealth. On Wednesday, KYA held a virtual forum with panelists from the foundation and the American Heart Association to discuss tobacco free policies in the state, ahead of the next legislative session.

Bonnie Hackbarth, with the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said in the first 12 months after the cigarette tax went into effect, the state saw a decrease of 39 million packs purchased in the Commonwealth, “We think that cigarette tax had a major part in reducing tobacco in Kentucky.” Hackbarth said the decrease is a 10.1% drop from the year before, compared to a 6% drop nationally.

Panelists also addressed Kentucky’s tobacco free schools bill saying 42% of school districts voluntarily adopted tobacco free campus policies before the bill. That jumped to 97% after the bill, according to Hackbarth.

According to a map of Kentucky’s Tobacco Free Schools, five districts in the state have not adopted tobacco free policies, due to an opt out provision. Click HERE to view the map of tobacco free schools.

Hackbarth also addressed progress made during the past year. She said they focused on two main items – Tobacco 21 and an excise tax for electronic cigarettes.

Hackbarth said the foundation started at the federal level with Sen. Mitch McConnell in December of 2019. At the state level, Hackbarth said Kentucky had what’s known as PUP laws, which would penalize youth for purchasing tobacco, rather than put the focus on retailers. Tobacco 21 became law in Kentucky in 2020, effectively raising the legal age to purchase tobacco, including electronic cigarattes, from 18 to 21. Hackbarth says it also put the notice on retailers to check ID.

A second measure the foundation tackled this year dealt with excise tax on e-cigarettes. Until this year, only tobacco products sold in Kentucky were not subject to excise tax, explained Hackbarth. The legislature approved taxing e-cigs like Juul and pod-based e-cigs at $1.50 per pod. For open systems, like liquids you can buy in vaping stores, it was 15% per milliliter. “It’s not exactly what we wanted,” said Hackbarth. “But the foundation considered that a win.”

While panelists addressed the progress, made possible thru groups and organizations, they also discussed their next battle.

Hackbarth says the goal for the next legislative session is to give local communities a tool they can use to reduce tobacco use and healthcare costs associtaed with it. Right now, Hackbarth explained local communities are prohibited and preempted from adopting policies known to be effective in reducing tobacco use. Hackbarth shared an example, saying if a city wants to say tobacco retailers can’t relocate within 100 feet of a school or playground, they’re not allowed to do that right now. Hackbarth said that’s because of a state law that passed 24 years ago to preempt local tobacco laws and overturn several community laws already on the books. Their goal is to repeal that law and give local communities control.

Shannon Smith, with the American Heart Association in Kentucky, says the state ranks first in cancer deaths, “mostly caused by use of tobacco.” Smith said the repeal of the law is, “A way to combat health disparities in communities.” Smith also notes, “This does not force a community to pass a law, it just allows them the ability.”

When it comes to healthcare costs, Hackbarth said tobacco use costs the economy $1.92 billion a year, $586 million in Medicaid to cover those healthcare costs. She also said businesses lose $2.8 billion in productivity a year from people who use tobacco, based on illnesses, time away from their desk for smoke breaks, extra cleaning, extra liability and extra health insurance.

Looking ahead to the future, panelists said there’s a lot of opportunity for people to join their fight.

Ben Robinson, a high school youth advocate for KYA, shared his insight. He said he gained a new sense of responsibility by participating in Children’s Advocacy Day at the capitol, providing a voice for the youth. Robinson also said hearing the message from other youth is more impactful. “Hearing the message from other youth and not from adults is important,” said Robinson. It’s why he said he also shares videos about the dangers and misconceptions of using tobacco products.

Robinson shared an example of other changes he’d like to see from implementing health warnings on retail displays about dangers of tobacco use, to targeting where tobacco ads can air products or even incorporating a minimum distance between advertisements and schools.

“Advertising works,” said Hackbarth. “If we can reduce the advertising that our youth see especially, then that can really help reduce our youth tobacco use rate.”

Hackbarth offered another example to, “license tobacco retail outlets”, saying right now there’s not a searchable way to know who is selling tobacco products.

Smith added an example of what this law repeal would not do, saying it would not, “give them the authority to pass a cigarette tax.” Smith also said it doesn’t open the door to increase taxes since it’s not a tax on the product itself.

Panelists also discussed equity. Hackbarth said it’s important to note smoking rates tend to be higher among those with low income and members of the LGBTQ community.

“It’s a nicotine product you’re becoming addicted to,” said Hackbarth.

When asked why appeal a bill that’s been on the books for 24 years, Hackbarth said, “We need to be able to address these disparities at the local level and focus on the issues that are particularly affecting those communities.”

Smith said an old approach to make Kentucky smoke free was, “a tough pill to swallow.” Smith said many didn’t like a statewide approach, which is why they’re putting their focus on the repeal of the decades old law.

Hackbarth said it’s an, “opportunity to pass something that could be really, really useful and effective.”

“This isn’t writing a new law,” said Smith. She says it’s simply trying to remove a law on the books. “We are trying to offer local control.”

Smith said she is hopeful of the appeal saying its’ important to note Burley tobacco is mostly what’s grown in Kentucky which is typically sold out of state and therefore not a major impact to local tobacco farmers.

“This isn’t targeting tobacco or people who smoke,” said Smith.

Starting in December, Hackbarth said they’re issuing a call to action, “We don’t have the money, what we have is your voices and we’ve got to activate those voices.”

For more information, click HERE.

The next Smoke Free Coalition Day at the capitol is set for February 3 and will be virtual due to the pandemic. Signup is available HERE.

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