Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Smoke-free advocates rally at state Capitol for three measures to decrease soaring youth use of electronic cigarettes

Coalition for a Smoke-free Tomorrow rally at state Capitol
By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Kentucky's Coalition for a Smoke-free Tomorrow rallied in Frankfort Jan. 14 to call on state lawmakers to pass several measures aimed at decreasing electronic-cigarette use among the state's youth, a phenomenon that continues to surge.

Between 2017 and 2019, e-cigarette use more than quadrupled among the state's middle-school students and nearly doubled among its high-school students, with one in four high schoolers and one in five middle schoolers reporting monthly use, said Ben Chandler, chair of the coalition and president of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, which staffs it.

The coalition, comprising more than 225 Kentucky organizations, is seeking:
  • An excise tax on the sale of electronic cigarettes equivalent to the current tax on cigarettes
  • Raising the legal age for buying all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, from 18 to 21, which would comply with a new federal law, and removing the status offense for minors' purchase, use and possession of tobacco products 
  • Increases in funding for tobacco-use prevention and cessation efforts
Despite a general lack of appetite among most Republican lawmakers, who have super-majorities in both chambers, to pass a statewide smoking ban, the General Assembly has been able to pass several measures to discourage tobacco use during the last two sessions.

In 2018, lawmakers increased the cigarette tax by 50 cents, to $1.10 per pack. That resulted in 36 million fewer packs being sold in the state in the following year, a decrease of about 10 percent, while national sales declined 6.1%.

In 2019, the legislature passed a school smoking ban that has resulted in 97% of the state's school districts being tobacco-free. Before its passage, only 42% of districts were tobacco-free.

"These are strong steps and over time they will help," said Chandler. "But the youth vaping epidemic is still growing and we can't sit on our laurels, especially when there are other proven laws we can pass to protect our kids. We have more to do."

Ashli Watts, president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, which has been a longtime supporter of tobacco-free policies, said its support for the e-cigarette tax and updating the state's statutes to comply with the federal Tobacco-21 law will improve the health of the state's workforce, which she said is one of the unhealthiest in the nation, as well as bring in some desperately needed new revenue. "It really is a win-win," she said.

Rep. Jerry Miller, R-Louisville, has filed House Bill 32 to impose a 27.5% excise tax on e-cigarettes and related devices, commonly known as "vapes" though they produce aerosols as well as vapors.

The coalition estimates that such a tax would generate $34 million in its first year. A recent Kentucky Health Issues Poll found that 75 percent of Kentucky adults would support the tax. E-cigarettes are the only tobacco product sold in Kentucky that are not subject to a state excise tax.

Legislative leaders indicated in December, at the chamber's legislative preview, that there is support for such a tax, but were uncertain if it would be as high as the cigarette tax.

Miller unsuccessfully sponsored an e-cigarette tax bill in the 2019. In 2018, an e-cig tax was included in legislation that raised the tax on traditional cigarettes, but was removed in the Senate just before final passage and after lobbying by Altria Group, the largest tobacco company and 35% owner of Juul Labs, the largest e-cig company.

Senator Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, has filed Senate Bill 56, that would update the state's law so that it will comply with the new federal law that raised the legal age to purchase tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21. Alvarado's bill would also remove the status offense and penalties for youth who purchase, use or possess tobacco products and shift the penalty to retailers who fail to adequately check buyers' identification.

"Evidence shows that educating kids about the dangers of tobacco use leads to far better outcomes than putting them into the juvenile justice system," he said.

Alvarado told the group that research shows that raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21 will reduce the number of teens who start using tobacco products, will improve their health and will ultimately reduce tobacco use across all age groups in Kentucky.

Abby Hefner, a sophomore at McCracken County High School, told her story of getting addicted to Juul e-cigarettes and of the struggles she's had in quitting, stating that it is still a struggle when she is around people who are Juuling.

She described herself as a straight-A student who had always been a rule follower, but started vaping Juul at a football game when she was a freshman. She said she was hooked instantly and that it was easy to purchase them from other students who sold them.

"It gave me a buzz that I had never experienced before and I was ready to do it again," she said.

She told the crowd that she has tried to quit for over a year, but hadn't been able to because of the "headaches and withdrawals." She said she finally quit "cold turkey" this summer because she was away from home and didn't have anyone to buy them for her.

Hefner said more money is need for prevention programs to educate people about the dangers of e-cigarettes, since many still think they are harmless. She added that if her friends had offered her a cigarette she would have never taken it because of "how gross and how harmful they are."

The coalition is urging the General Assembly to raise the annual budget for prevention and cessation to $10 million, which would allow the state Department for Public Health to conduct multi-media education campaigns about the dangers of e-cigarettes and other tobacco use, and expand its cessation and other services. Currently, the state budgets $3.3 million a year for prevention and cessation.

Chandler noted that the state brings in more than $500 million year in tobacco revenues, but only budgets $3.3 million for prevention and education. Further, he said the tobacco industry spends nearly $280 million to market its products in the state.

In a prepared statement read by Bonnie Hackbarth, with the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, said, "We know that there are many demands on the budget, but we also know that every dollar spent on tobacco prevention and cessation returns $5 in savings for reduced hospitalizations tied to tobacco." Moser chairs the House Health and Welfare Committee.

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