Dave Adkisson, President & CEO, Kentucky Chamber of Commerce
In a recent legislative committee meeting, I had the opportunity to speak to legislators about the need for Kentucky to adopt a statewide smoke-free law. It was then that I heard Rep. Tom Burch recount his past effort to introduce a similar bill more than 25 years ago. The bill was to be reviewed by the House agriculture committee, which at the time was heavily influenced by Kentucky’s tobacco industry. He recalled that as he got up to speak on behalf of the bill, “every member of the committee lit up a cigarette.” The bill, of course, went up in smoke.
Burch noted that his failed attempt represented a much different time in the Commonwealth. Smoking was socially acceptable, its health risks were understated and many Kentuckians, including some members of my own family, relied on income from farming tobacco. At that time, it was certainly unlikely that the Kentucky Chamber would support policies to limit smoking.
However, after years of warnings from the Surgeon General and medical associations and thousands of Kentuckians’ lives lost to lung cancer, Kentucky’s attitudes about enacting policies to limit cigarette smoke have changed. And so have the attitudes of Kentucky’s business community.
Much of this shift in thinking can be attributed to evidence demonstrating exposure to secondhand smoke is nearly as dangerous as smoking. In 2006, after years of studies, the Surgeon General issued a report declaring there is no safe level of secondhand smoke, and the only way to fully protect non-smokers from exposure to secondhand smoke indoors is to prevent all smoking in that indoor space or building.
During that same committee meeting, a Vietnam veteran testified that his father, a nonsmoker, died of lung cancer after volunteering for 10 years at a smoke-filled church bingo hall. While the personal impact of nonsmokers contracting smoking-related diseases is heartbreaking enough, the financial toll on business and government is also enormous.
With nearly a quarter of Kentuckians who smoke (the second highest rate in the country), the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has estimated smoking-related health expenditures cost Kentucky more than $1.7 billion annually, and the smoking-attributable economic productivity loss at more than $2.6 billion. Employers are not only dealing with higher health care costs for employees who smoke and are exposed to secondhand smoke, but also significantly higher rates of absenteeism. The business community can no longer ignore the effect smoking has on our insurance premiums and on our tax bills. Smoking is not only killing us, it is bankrupting us – both in terms of costs to business and costs to government.
The Kentucky Chamber did not come to its position of supporting a statewide smoking law without thoughtful consideration from our members. More than 70% of Chamber members who responded to our 2011 policy survey support a comprehensive smoke-free law (i.e. one that prohibits smoking in public places including the workplace, restaurants and bars with no exemptions). Only 9% of members said they opposed all forms of a statewide proposal. The Chamber’s Health and Wellness Policy Council, comprised of business leaders across the state, have unanimously endorsed the idea of a statewide smoking policy.
Comprehensive laws or ordinances have been passed in 23 states and 19 Kentucky communities, including Louisville and Lexington. Despite concerns from some in the hospitality industry, numerous studies across the country have shown that smoke-free laws do not have a negative economic impact, and in many cases have a positive one. Smoke-free laws not only protect the rights of nonsmokers to breath clean air, but also help smokers to quit smoking. In fact, since their smoke-free law took effect, the city of Lexington saw no loss in employment and an estimated savings of $21 million per year in health care costs because of a decrease in adult smokers.
Opponents of smoke-free laws often point to the importance of individual property rights of business owners and their ability to go smoke-free if they so choose. They say consumers then have a choice of whether to patronize a smoke-free business. We agree property rights are sacred and any attempt to remove these rights should be carefully scrutinized. However, as the Kentucky Supreme Court has held, smoke-free laws are not an improper infringement of property rights but are instead within the purview of protecting public health. And while consumers may have a choice, nonsmoking workers – particularly in this down economy – often do not.
The Chamber is not typically supportive of policies that focus on a particular business or industry disproportionately, but the body of evidence on smoking and its negative impact on public health and the economy are too significant to ignore. Fortunately, the Kentucky General Assembly has made great strides in recent years to combat our state’s addiction to smoking, from raising the cigarette tax twice to giving private companies the right to offer lower priced health plans to non-smokers without fear of litigation.
The Kentucky Chamber commends our legislative leaders for taking these and other important steps, but we can’t stop short of the ultimate goal – making sure yet another attempt at passing a statewide smoking law doesn’t go up in smoke.