Kentucky smokers will soon pay more for cigarettes, but smoke-free advocates say it's not enough

Groups clamor for statewide indoor smoking ban
Posted at 5:00 AM, May 02, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-02 08:10:56-04

Kentucky smokers will soon be paying 50 cents more per pack thanks to a newly passed cigarette tax hike included in the 2018 state budget.

While the increase will hit smokers in their pocketbooks, it isn't enough, health advocates say, to generate the benefits they were seeking.

The 50-cent-per-pack tax increase brings the total tax per pack to $1.10. The increase fell short of the proposed $1 per pack desired by smoke-free advocates who considered the tax increase a stepping stone to their long-term goal of a statewide comprehensive smoke-free policy.

"The culture of tobacco use in Kentucky is changing as people recognize the health and financial costs of our high smoking rates," said Bonnie Hackbarth, vice president of external affairs for the Foundation for Healthy Kentucky. "The fact that the legislature passed a cigarette tax increase is evidence of a willingness on the part of elected officials to consider policies that will reduce smoking.

"That said," she continued, "the tax increase was too low to achieve significant health benefits, so we have lots of work to do to help legislators and the public understand the evidence showing that significant tobacco tax increases really do reduce smoking and save lives, but that much less than a $1-per-pack increase will not move us toward that goal."

And although the tax increase is estimated to generate about $132 million in 2019, the real goal, according to Hackbarth, was to discourage Kentuckians from smoking, therefore improving the overall health of the state.

Although the Foundation for Healthy Kentucky has long fought for a smoke-free Kentucky, the tax was a different approach to improving a major health problem.

According to the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow, evidence shows that a $1 or higher increase in the cigarette tax would keep 23,200 children from becoming addicted to cigarettes and lead another 29,400 adults to quit smoking. The reduced smoking rates would benefit the state's bottom line by lowering tobacco-related health costs.

"Ultimately, the only way to protect all residents and visitors from the dangers of breathing secondhand smoke in enclosed public spaces and indoor workplaces is a comprehensive statewide smoke-free law," Hackbarth said. "Right now, we see that our best opportunity for success in protecting more Kentuckians from secondhand smoke is to work at the city and county levels, because the current legislature has made it clear that it will not consider a statewide law."

Comparatively, Ohio passed a complete indoor smoking ban in 2006. Kentucky is one of only 13 states without a statewide smoke-free indoor air law.

Nearly one-quarter of adults in Kentucky smoke tobacco compared to the national average of 16 percent. Both the Kentucky and Northern Kentucky Chambers of Commerce have expressed support for smoke-free initiatives and are members of the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow.

The Foundation has strong support from the people as well. The 2017 Kentucky Health Issues Poll (KHIP), sponsored by Interact for Health and the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, found that 71 percent of Kentucky adults support a comprehensive statewide smoke-free law. In Northern Kentucky, the number of supporters is slightly higher at 73 percent. Yet, only one Northern Kentucky county has passed a smoke-free ordinance.

Kenton County's 2011 legislation prohibits smoking in most public buildings and places of employment, with exemptions provided for private clubs and establishments that serve alcohol and do not allow patrons under the age of 18. Currently, 66 establishments qualify for exemptions.

(Graphic provided by Northern Kentucky Health Department)

"The law has improved the air quality in many Kenton County businesses and has helped to protect children from secondhand smoke," said Mary Singler, health promotion manager for the Northern Kentucky Health Department. "Thirty-five percent of Kenton restaurants/bars have an exemption and still allow smoking. Air quality is 16 times worse in Kenton County restaurants/bars that allow smoking, compared to those (that) do not.

"The only way to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke," Singler continued, "is to require completely smoke-free workplaces and public places. Other approaches, such as air ventilation systems and separate smoking and non-smoking sections, do not eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke."

A 2015 poll conducted by the Independent Business Association of Northern Kentucky showed far less support for a smoking ban, with 39 percent of those surveyed saying the decision to go smoke free should be left to business owners and consumers.

Although it took the passing of the Kenton County ordinance to spur Paul Shanley, owner of Molly Malones, to go smoke free, he said the decision was good for business. Today, he owns both the Covington location as well as one in Cincinnati, and both are completely smoke free.

"We didn't have to go that way, but personally I don't think it has been a disadvantage for us," Shanley said of his decision not to ask to be exempt from the ordinance. "We lost some customers but we gained ... more."

Shanley said his business has grown each year since the ordinance was passed.

Multiples studies show that smoke-free policies do not cause adverse economic outcomes for businesses, including restaurants and bars, and can in fact have a positive economic impact on businesses.

Calls for comment to the Independent Business Association of Northern Kentucky, which has been outspoken in the past against smoke-free initiatives, were not returned.