Number of Kentucky school districts implementing 100 percent tobacco free policies drops sharply

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By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Only two school districts have passed 100 percent smoke-free school policies in Kentucky this year, compared to 16 in 2016, perhaps because they are waiting to see if the state will require such action.

“Sometimes when the state legislature takes things on, local officials kind of wait and see if the state’s going to do it,” Ellen Hahn, director of the Kentucky Center for Smoke-free Policy, said in an interview. “We’ve noticed that, actually, with local smoke-free ordinances, that when the state took it on, people just kind of waited. So, that could be why.”

A bill in the 2016 legislative session would have required all Kentucky schools to be 100 percent tobacco-free. It passed quickly out of the Senate, but couldn’t garner enough support in the House to bring it to a floor vote.

Sen. Ralph Alvarado of Winchester, who sponsored the legislation, said in an e-mail that he plans to sponsor the bill again in the upcoming session and anticipates that a similar one will be introduced in the House, where his fellow Republicans gained control this year.

“Kentucky has the worst youth smoking rate in the country,” Alvarado said in an email. “With all of our current research, everyone is now keenly aware of the devastating health impacts and societal cost of tobacco use. If we hope to reduce the financial burden and promote the healthiest lifestyles for our children, it will have to begin by setting the best examples in our schools.”

Almost 17 percent of Kentucky’s high-school students are smokers and 23 percent of the report using electronic cigarettes, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The organization also reports that 3,200 children become new daily smokers each year.

Elizabeth Anderson-Hoagland, a youth tobacco policy specialist with the state Department for Public Health, said she encourages local school districts to pass 100 percent tobacco-free school policies, regardless of what happens at the state level.

“When school districts work on tobacco-free policies at the local level, they can increase community engagement, create buy-in with parents and families, and ultimately help with policy compliance,” she said in an email. “A 100 percent Tobacco-Free School policy is an important way for school districts to protect youth from the effects of secondhand smoke while role modeling smoke-free lifestyles.”

Schools are considered 100 percent tobacco-free if they don’t allow tobacco products, including vapor products and alternative nicotine products, by staff, students and visitors at any time on school owned property and during school sponsored events.

As of July 2017, just over half of Kentucky’s public school students were in school districts with tobacco-free policies: 64 of the 173 districts, covering 681 Kentucky schools. Many districts still need to update their policy to meet new standards for vapor products and e-cigarettes.

Owen County just passed what looks like a 100 percent tobacco-free school policy, but it is still in the process of being verified.

“We want our community to be healthier, and if we all agree that being 100 percent tobacco-free starting in schools, where we have children who are looking at adults and sometimes doing what adults do — that with education, hopefully, we can prevent that tobacco use from becoming an issue,” Owen County Schools Director of District Wide Programs Joretta Crowe told The News-Herald of Owenton.

Most Kentuckians support such policies. According to the 2015 Kentucky Health Issues Poll, 85 percent of Kentucky adults favor tobacco-free schools.

Hoagland said the 100 Percent Tobacco Free School website offers resources for school districts interested in implementing such policies, including success stories from Warren County and Russell County.

“These success stories show that tobacco-free is possible no matter how large or small your school district,” she said. “Additionally, support from your local health department will really make a difference, such as trainings for school personnel on the impact of secondhand smoke exposure to smoking cessation classes for interested staff.”

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