Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have filed bills to let cities and counties more strictly regulate marketing and sale of tobacco products, a power the legislature took from them nearly 25 years ago.

Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, filed Senate Bill 81 and Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, filed House Bill 147. The bills say “A city or county government may impose restrictions or requirements on the use, display, sale, and distribution of tobacco products or vapor products that are stricter than those imposed under state law.” 

Adams said at a news conference, “Our bills do not mandate that local communities pass tobacco control laws. Rather, the bills give communities the tools that they can use, if they so choose. Also, this measure does not take away any power from the state legislature in any way. If there comes a time that another proven statewide measure to improve health by reducing tobacco use is warranted and supported by my colleagues, the state would still have the right to do that.”

Adams explained that the bill would allow local control of tobacco policies that were taken away in 1996 when cigarette manufacturers lobbied to pre-empt local control as a way to overturn existing local laws and prevent future community measures to reduce tobacco use. 

Moser said the law is needed to make Kentucky a healthier place, noting that nearly 9,000 Kentuckians die from a smoking-related disease each year; Kentucky has the second highest rate of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD; and the highest cancer incidence and death rates in the nation, with one-third of the cancer cases tied directly to smoking.

“That means that more than one-third of the cancers in Kentucky can be prevented, ” she said, adding later, “There’s simply no reason that local communities that have the political will and the constituents support to adopt measures to limit the marketing and the sale of tobacco products in their community should be prohibited from doing so.” 

Nearly 25 years after the pre-emption law was enacted in March 1996,  Kentucky continues to have nearly the highest adult smoking rate in the nation, at 24 percent, with rates as high as 49% in some areas. In 16 Kentucky counties, more than 30 percent of women smoke while pregnant. 

Meanwhile, electronic cigarettes are addicting a whole new generation of youth to nicotine, with one in four Kentucky high-school students and nearly one in six middle schoolers regularly using e-cigarettes. 

Hannah Abdon, a student at Randall Cooper High Schoolin Union, spoke about the prevalence of e-cigarette and tobacco advertising is in her area. 

“While driving to my own high school, I pass four different stores that heavily advertised tobacco products in their store fronts,” she said. “Most of these places are very close to my school. . . . Tobacco advertising is virtually everywhere I look. This is why we need special laws . . . so that my community and others in Kentucky can try new ways to prevent youth from vaping and other tobacco use. ”  

Abigail Birman, a junior at McCracken County High School in Paducah, said without this law, it’s useless for her to advocate for any local changes: “What is crazy is that I have not done any local advocacy work in my area because there is a state law that prohibits my local community from doing more to protect me and my friends from tobacco advertising.”

Representing the business community, Betsy Clemons, executive director of the Hazard-Perry County Chamber of Commerce, expressed strong support for these bills. She talked about the importance of building a healthy workforce in Eastern Kentucky, which has some of the highest health disparities in the nation, to attract potential companies to locate or expand their operations in the region.

Clemons said smoking costs Kentucky businesses nearly $2.8 billion every single year in lost productivity and an additional $5,800 per year for every employee that smokes.

“We need more tools to help reduce tobacco use, improve our workforce, health, productivity and reduce our costs. We need the freedom to innovate and try things in our community that might not work elsewhere in Kentucky,” she said. “That’s what local control of tobacco marketing and sales is all about in it’s the next logical step for Kentucky.” 

Dr. Pat Withrow, a retired Paducah cardiologist and advocate for prevention of youth tobacco use, said limiting youth exposure to e-cigarette and tobacco advertising is a proven strategy to decrease teen use of the products. 

“We know that 90% of tobacco use starts before age 18,” he said. “If local communities could reduce youth exposures to ads of vapes and other tobacco products, they could also reduce youth tobacco use.”

The bills are supported by the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow, comprising of more than 220 Kentucky businesses, health care providers, faith-based and health advocacy organizations.

(Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.)

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