A tobacco-free schools bill that had been idling for several weeks finally got passed by the state House of Representatives Tuesday despite concerns by some legislators about loss of local control.
House Bill 11, sponsored by Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, would prohibit unauthorized use of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and vaping, on school property and at school activities, but with some exceptions.
The House approved two amendments to the bill, with one allowing school boards to opt out of the ban within three years of the effective date. The other amendment is designed to exempt adults during off-campus, school-sanctioned trips when not in the presence of students, Moser said.
The bill, which now advances to the Senate, is one of multiple efforts this session of the General Assembly to address a national increase in youth vaping that has been decried by federal officials, such as the U.S. Surgeon General.
“Its purpose is to eliminate tobacco use during school hours and at after-school events in order to help create an environment where tobacco use is not the norm,” Moser said on the House floor.
People who use tobacco products tend to start in their youth, so “it’s just time to stop addiction where it starts,” Moser said, adding, “Kids don’t even realize that they are addicting their brains to nicotine.”
Rep. Lynn Bechler, R-Marion, criticized the legislation, calling it “a feel-good bill” that’s not “actually a very good bill” because some school districts (including Jefferson County Public Schools) already have implemented their own tobacco policies, making a mandate unnecessary.
“School districts should have to take a stand,” Bechler said, instead of trying to “hide behind what the General Assembly says they have to do.”
However, Rep. Richard Heath, R-Mayfield, noted that several school districts have not yet adopted their own policies and that an amendment focused on local control would be letting the remaining districts off the hook.
Rep. Lisa Willner, D-Louisville, also spoke against that amendment, which had been proposed by Bechler.
“This is not a local issue,” Willner said. “This is a public health issue. It’s an economic issue. But mainly, it’s about the health and safety of our children.”
The amendment by Bechler was ultimately voted down. A proposed amendment to increase the purchasing age of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and vapor products, from 18 to 21 was not taken up by the House.
Moser noted during her testimony that provisions of House Bill 11 “will be implemented and enforced by the local school board because they know what works best in their communities.”
The bill directs the boards to have written policies in place by July 1, 2020, and to post signage about the ban in or on all property, including vehicles.
Prior to Tuesday’s vote, it was unclear whether Moser’s bill would ever be called up for a vote by the full House. It advanced out of the House Health and Family Services Committee on Feb. 7 but had been languishing ever since.
Its passage by the House this week was applauded by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and several other organizations, including Baptist Health, Humana and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
“The Kentucky House of Representatives has taken powerful action to reduce youth vaping and other tobacco use at (a) time when Kentucky and the nation are facing an epidemic,” the groups said in a statement. “Making Kentucky school campuses completely tobacco-free is critical to changing youth attitudes about tobacco products.”
Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, issued a statement saying, “Kentucky is one step closer to making a profound and positive difference for kids’ health with the House’s passage of House Bill 11, championed by Representative Kim Moser. … All of our students deserve to learn and grow in a healthy school environment.”