The state budget adopted March 6 by the House includes steep cuts in funds to help people stop smoking, even as health experts warn that people who smoke or use e-cigarettes are at greater risk from COVID-19.
Kentucky, where 23% of adults smoke, continues to have one of the nation’s highest rates in smoking, ranking second behind West Virginia.
The House budget cuts the already minimal amount Kentucky spends on stop-smoking efforts through local health departments.
Further, the cuts to smoking cessation — slashing state spending from about $3.5 million a year to $2 million a year — come as health advocates are sounding the alarm about the growing popularity of e-cigarettes, or vaping, among Kentucky’s kids.
“It’s a huge cut at a time when we have this vaping epidemic among our youth,” said Bonnie Hackbarth, vice president for external affairs with the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.
And the timing, she said, couldn’t be worse amid concerns about COVID-19, which attacks the lungs.
“Anything that reduces your lung capacity reduces your ability to fight off respiratory infections,” she said.
However, state Sen.Chris McDaniel, R-Latonia, and chairman of the Senate budget committee, said Wednesday he expects the Senate to recommend changes, especially in light of the rapid developments in the coronavirus pandemic which has infected more than two dozen Kentuckians so far, resulting in one death.
“The scenario we are dealing with is different from the scenario the House was dealing with 2 ½ weeks ago,” McDaniel said. “The world has changed on a number of different levels and we are trying to adjust. Public health has always been a priority but even more so now.”
McDaniel said the Senate will try to “reinforce front line public health within our budget.”
Tobacco use costs Kentucky about $1.9 billion a year in health spending, about $600 million of that in the state’s Medicaid program, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, It kills about 8,900 adults each year.
2020 Kentucky legislature: Gov. Andy Beshear says legislature should focus only on budget and coronavirus response
The state budget developments come as lawmakers are trying to shore up the state’s health departments, which have been struggling under budget cuts and rising pension costs in recent years.
The state’s 61 regional health departments have seen staffing numbers cut in half, from about 4,000 to the current 2,000 over the past decade, and some were facing potential shutdowns this year without relief offered through a bill enacted this legislative session. House Bill 129, which more narrowly focuses their roles and allows more revenue for some health departments, was signed into law March 17 by Gov. Andy Beshear.
Cuts to money for smoking cessation would mean a direct hit to local health departments that administer smoking education and stop-smoking programs throughout Kentucky, Hackbarth said.
“We’re talking about local health departments that are already struggling,” Hackbarth said. “They could lose their entire tobacco prevention program.”
Health advocates say Kentucky already spends far too little on efforts to help people stop smoking.
While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends Kentucky spend at least $56 million a year, Kentucky is spending only about $3.3 million this year and would spend far less under the House budget.
The money comes from the 1998 master settlement between states and tobacco companies to settle lawsuits over damages to states from smoking costs. This year, Kentucky got about $110 from the settlement but disperses the funds among a variety of public health and other programs, including smoking cessation.
It got nearly $400 million last year in revenue from taxes on tobacco products.
Hackbarth said the amount Kentucky spends on smoking cessation dwarfs what the tobacco industry is spending on marketing and advertising in the state, about $275 million a year.
The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky recommends higher taxes on tobacco products including e-cigarettes, which currently are not taxed, as a way to raise revenue and discourage smoking.
House Bill 32, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Miller, a Louisville Republican, would place a 25% excise tax on e-cigarettes and increase taxes on other tobacco products, such as snuff or chew. It does not raise the current $1.10 a pack tax on cigarettes.
The bill, which has passed the House and is pending in the Senate, would raise about $50 million over two years.
The foundation recommends a 27.5% tax on e-cigarettes and increasing by $1 the tax on a pack of cigarettes to help fund smoking cessation programs and smoking-related health costs.
Read or Share this story: https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/politics/ky-legislature/2020/03/18/kentucky-house-budget-cuts-funds-help-stop-smoking-amid-coronavirus-outbreak/2863875001/