On Oct. 18, the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow launched with a rally at the State Capitol in Frankfort. The coalition consists of major stakeholders in public health, and at the rally, speakers unveiled a set of goals aimed at reducing Kentucky’s high tobacco use rates and protecting its citizens from secondhand smoke.
According to data presented at the rally, nearly 9,000 Kentuckians die each year from diseases caused by tobacco use, and the state spends $1.92 billion each year to treat tobacco-related illnesses. Kentucky ranks at or near the top of all states in incidence rates for cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
“A larger percentage of people who live in Kentucky get cancer, and a greater percentage of us die from it, than anywhere else in the nation,” said Ben Chandler, CEO of Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and chair of the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow. He presented statistics from a recent study at the rally showing that, while cancer rates have decreased substantially in the U.S. since 1980, the reduction has been much smaller in Kentucky – and in some areas of the state has even risen.
“Kentucky also has one of the top two smoking rates in the Kentucky,” Chandler said. “I don’t believe that’s a coincidence.”
To reverse these troubling health indicators, the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow announced a set of policy proposals designed to lower tobacco use in the commonwealth. These include a $1 or more increase in the state tobacco tax (per pack of cigarettes), an increased effort to help counties and cities enact smoke-free ordinances, and more resources devoted to educating the public about tobacco cessation products and classes.
The policy proposals have the support of a wide group of state organizations, including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
“The top priority of the Chamber is a healthy and skilled workforce,” said Dave Adkisson, CEO of the Kentucky Chamber. “That’s the future of economic development in this state, that’s the future of prosperity in this state. And we can do something about the health factor with the two measures that have been promoted by this coalition. One is to have a smoke-free policy across this state, and the other is to increase the cost of cigarettes.”
Speakers at the rally included Dr. Pat Withrow, director of outreach for Baptist Health Paducah and a retired cardiologist who is a leading public advocate for tobacco use reduction, and Jacob Steward, a student at Bourbon County High School and a member of Students Making a Community Change (SMACC), which works to prevent tobacco use among Kentucky teenagers.
Another supporter is Sen. Ralph Alvarado (R-Winchester), a physician in Clark County. Alvarado said that the tobacco tax increase backed by the Coalition has a good chance of being considered when the Kentucky General Assembly meets in January for its budget session. Legislators will be considering many options to increase the state’s revenue in order to manage public pension debt and other pressing needs in the commonwealth, and Alvarado believes that the Coalition’s proposal is a win-win for everyone in Kentucky.
“This measure would generate between $260 and $270 million in revenue, but will also help drive down our user rates across all demographics in the state,” Alvarado said. “It would be a win for our physical health, a win for our financial health, and it also has the support of the public at large.”