Thursday, February 14, 2019

Tobacco-free schools bill hits a snag; prospects still appear favorable, but floor leader Carney says 'Nothing is certain'

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- The bill to get tobacco out of all Kentucky schools has hit a snag.

House Bill 11 passed unanimously out of the House Health and Family Services Committee Feb. 7 and was put on the consent calendar, for bills to pass without debate. It was moved to the regular orders, a switch that required signatures of three lawmakers.

Rep. Lynn Bechler, R-Marion, said he initiated the effort to move the bill from consent. The other signatures came from Reps. Myron Dossett, R-Pembroke, and Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville.

All three told Kentucky Health News that they signed the petition because they thought it needed to be debated on the House floor before it was voted on, but they differed in the specifics. Meeks said he would support it, but Bechler and Dossett said it would be government overreach, and Dossett spoke up for tobacco.

Rep. Lynn Bechler
Bechler said, "I thought it was important enough to discuss, not just be passed because it came out of committee that way. I also think that the bill goes way too far. I have no problem should an individual school district, as I believe 42 percent have already done so, have instituted the policy. But I think it would be state government overreach if we were to force schools to do that."

Among the state's 173 school districts, 74 have adopted 100 percent tobacco-free policies, covering 740 schools and 58 percent of the state's students. Federal law only prohibits smoking inside schools that receive federal funding.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, argued that the bill would allow school boards to set their own rules around implementation and regulation, giving them a sort of "local option."

Bechler added, "I think it is wrong if somebody who chews tobacco can't come out at half-time of a football game and go sit in his or her car at the back of a parking lot and throw in a chew. There is no smoke coming out, none of the kids would be aware of it, it's not presenting a bad example."

The bill would apply to all school properties and events. Rep. Travis Brenda, R-Brodhead, a Rockcastle County teacher, has filed a floor amendment that would allow use of tobacco products on school property if children were not present.

Rep. Myron Dossett
Dossett concurred with Bechler, echoing several of the same points. "A lot of school districts have already voted to do this and I'm a strong believer that this is one of those local issues," he said, adding that it's important for parents to teach their children about the dangers of tobacco.

Dossett also noted that he represents Christian County, a large tobacco producer. It is also home to a large smokeless-tobacco factory.

Bechler nor Dossett said they had  received calls from their constituents, educators or school employees in opposition to the bill.

In support of the bill, Meeks said it was important to pass because it will help to decrease teen smoking rates, which will contribute to a lifetime of better health outcomes for them. "I asked that it be pulled so that we can have that more robust discussion of the bill," he said.

Rep. Kim Moser
Moser said she was working hard to make sure all of the House members were educated on the intent of the bill. Further, she said this year's version of the bill does not include possession of tobacco products, but only tobacco use.

"We want to get it right and I think it will pass," she said. "We've got a lot of support -- outside of the questions here, statewide -- it is so supported."

Moser has said the bill has the support of the Kentucky School Boards Association, the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, the tobacco industry and the Juul Labs, maker of the most popular electronic cigarette. The idea had the support of 87 percent of Kentucky adults in the Kentucky Health Issues Poll and the lobbying support of the Coalition for a Smoke-free Tomorrow, about 180 groups across the state.

The coalition said in a prepared statement Thursday, "A strong tobacco-free schools policy is essential to protect our youth from tobacco. Prohibiting tobacco use 24/7 creates an environment where tobacco use is not the norm, reduces adolescent and teen tobacco use, protects youth from secondhand smoke, aerosol and residue, and provides positive adult role modeling. . . . The proposed amendment to allow some to use tobacco on school property is unnecessary, and would result in a weak, ineffective bill."

Rep. Bam Carney
House Majority Floor Leader Bam Carney, R-Campbellsville, said he thought the bill had enough votes to pass and that he expects that he would call it up for a vote at some point, but added, "Nothing is certain."

Carney, an educator, added, "It is an issue that a lot of our caucus members, particularly in the rural areas of the state, not that they are opposed to it, but I think it is a fundamental question again about local control, letting locals make that call, which 42 percent have already done that. So I think that's the fundamental question is to whether or not locals should be able to do that."

Speaker David Osborne of Prospect said he and other leaders of the House's Republican majority had not taken an official position on the bill, but "I'm personally for it and it would be our intent to move it."

Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, who has filed a companion bill in the Senate, said he was "optimistic" that the House version of the bill would be passed in the Senate if they could just get it through the House. "That'll be the toughest part," he said.

The Senate passed a bill similar to Moser's in 2017, but it died in the House and such bills weren't even heard in the House and Senate education committees last year.

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