School Boards Association says it will support any legislation to make all schools in state tobacco-free

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By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Usually opposed to statewide mandates on schools, the Kentucky School Boards Association says it will support any legislation that proposes a statewide tobacco-free school law in the 2018 legislative session, because the majority of its members support such a law.

“We really try to protect local decision-making on these things,” Eric Kennedy, director of governmental relations for the association, said in a telephone interview. “But on this, where so many districts have already adopted these policies locally, and I think the health issue for students and staff also being tied into it, this is one of those rare instances where KSBA will support the General Assembly putting in a statewide policy like this.”

An August survey of more than 1,000 KSBA members on various legislative issues asked, “Should the General Assembly ban all tobacco products and electronic cigarettes/vapor products on school property?” Among the nearly 300 respondents, 81 percent said yes, Kennedy said, adding that members at 12 regional meetings across the state also voiced their support.

“Because our membership has said they are in such support of it, we will be supportive of any kind of smoke-free school legislation this year,” Kennedy said.

Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a physician from Winchester, introduced a bill to require all Kentucky schools to be 100 percent tobacco-free in the 2016 legislative session. It passed easily out of the Republican-run Senate but couldn’t garner enough support to be called up for a vote in the House, which was then controlled by Democrats but now has a Republican majority.

Alvarado, a Republican, told Kentucky Health News in September that he plans to sponsor the bill again in the upcoming session, and anticipates a similar one to be introduced in the House. Kennedy indicated he had been told likewise.

Kennedy said that as of August, 74 of Kentucky’s 173 school districts had some form of a tobacco-free policy in place, and KSBA knew of at least two more considering one.

The “100 Percent Tobacco Free Schools” website reports only 68 districts with such policies, because its requirements for inclusion are more stringent than KSBA’s. While that number is only 39 percent of districts, those districts have 55 percent of the state’s students.

To be listed on the site, schools must ban use of all tobacco products, including vapor products, by staff, students and visitors at any time on a school-owned property and during school-sponsored events. The site notes that some schools need to update their policies to meet new vapor-product standards.

‚ÄúPassing a 100 percent tobacco-free school policy sends a strong message to young people that tobacco use is not normal and not accepted,” Elizabeth Anderson-Hoagland, youth tobacco specialist for the state Department for Public Health, said in an e-mail. “We know that students in districts with tobacco-free policies that are strongly enforced are less likely to start using tobacco.”

Six school districts have passed 100 percent smoke-free policies in Kentucky this year, compared to 12 in 2016. This year’s additions are the West Point and Covington independent school districts and the Nelson, Hopkins, Monroe and Owen county districts.

KSBA recently became a member of the new Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow, spearheaded by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. The coalition has three goals: to help localities enact comprehensive smoking bans; to educate the public and providers about a new law that requires health insurers to cover all federally approved tobacco-cessation medications and programs; and to raise the state’s cigarette tax by $1 or more per pack.

The coalition has said raising the cigarette tax would initially generate $266 million a year for the state, decrease healthcare costs, improve employee productivity, improve the overall health of Kentuckians and would prevent Kentucky’s youth from ever starting the habit.

Kennedy said KSBA supports both the health and revenue missions of the coalition.

“We at KSBA for many years have advocated strongly for comprehensive state tax-reform to bring in additional revenue to support our schools, and so it fits perfectly in line with that,” he said.

New data from the Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance System survey shows the number of high school students who are smokers has dropped again, from 16.9 percent to 14.3 percent. The numbers also dropped for electronic cigarettes, dropping from 23 percent to 14.1 percent. The national rate for smoking is 8 percent and 11.3 percent for electronic cigarettes, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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