Health Politics

A Democratic candidate for Kentucky Governor said if he’s elected, he will push for a statewide smoking ban in most workplaces.

During a call with reporters Tuesday, Adam Edelen also said he would advocate for raising the cigarette tax. The former state auditor is one of four Democrats running for governor. 

“Those who choose not to smoke, those who choose to protect their health in the workplace have a right to a law that protects them and the pursuit of clean air,” Edelen said.

Kentucky legislators have introduced statewide smoke-free legislation in past years, but measures have never gained much traction. A proposal hasn’t yet come up in the current legislative session.

Edelen’s plan calls for banning smoking at enclosed workplaces, including bars and restaurants with three or more employees. Establishments specializing in tobacco products and services would be exempt, he said.

“I think one of the reasons that we’ve not been successful in getting this passed is we haven’t had governors lead form the front on this issue,” Edelen said.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who is running for re-election, has previously said that smoking bans were a local issue. But Republican state Sen. Ralph Alvarado, Bevin’s running mate, has pushed for statewide smoking ban.

Edelen said another reason smoke-free workplace legislation has never been successful in Kentucky is because of lobbying by tobacco companies. In 2018, the tobacco lobby spent more money lobbying state lawmakers than any other organization, according to the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission. Lobbyists for Philip Morris spent $464,872 — more than twice the amount they spent in 2017.

Last year, the legislature considered a $1 increase in the cigarette tax. Lawmakers eventually approved a tax increase of 50 cents per pack. 

Edelen said his father was a tobacco farmer, and he understands what tobacco has meant to  Kentucky.

“I also understand, I think better than anybody, the cultural hold that tobacco has had on Kentucky particularly from a traditional and historic perspective. But Kentuckians have got to stop being victims of our history,” Edelen said.

A poll released in January by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky shows 66 percent of Kentuckians support a comprehensive statewide smoke-free law, a slight dip from 71 percent support in the past two years. Fifty-six percent of adults polled said they were in favor of raising the legal age to purchase tobacco to 21. The foundation surveyed 1,580 adults by phone; the survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent.

The tobacco tax is currently $1.10 a pack and Edelen said raising the tax to $1.72 would bring in revenue that could be used for smoking prevention and cessation programs.

The Kentucky Farm Bureau argues that increasing the tax would mean less revenue for Kentucky because smokers might go to neighboring states to buy cheaper cigarettes.

In fiscal year 2018, Kentucky’s tobacco revenue — taxes plus tobacco settlement funds —  was $371 million, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Meanwhile, the state spent $2.6 million on tobacco prevention, the campaign said.  

About 26 percent of Kentucky adults smoke, one of the highest rates in the U.S. Kentucky spends $1.9 billion a year on smoking-related diseases — that includes $590 million in Medicaid, according to the American Heart Association.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.