It is not the least bit surprising Kentucky has received an "F" from the American Lung Association for its efforts to prevent smoking. As far as the association is concerned, this state's cigarette tax is way too low, smoking is allowed in too many public places, and too many Kentucky adults and teens smoke.
When compared to what other states are doing, the failing grade for Kentucky may be a fair one -- though compared to the way it was just a few years ago, Kentucky has come a long way in a short amount of time.
The American Lung Association is critical of Kentucky for its 30-cents-a-pack cigarette tax, ranking it 47th among the 50 states. But it was just a few years ago Kentucky's tax on cigarettes only was 3 cents a pack.
Former Gov. Ernie Fletcher convinced a reluctant General Assembly to approve a whopping 1,000 percent increase in the cigarette tax. At the same time, Fletcher, a physician, admitted he would have liked to increase the tax more, but legislators balked at anything higher than 30 cents a pack.
Is the mood changing in the General Assembly? Maybe. Rep. David Watkins, a Henderson Democrat who also is a family physician, says he will file a bill seeking an increase in the cigarette tax, saying he would like the tax to be at least $1 a pack.
But what is the primary purpose of the cigarette tax? Is it to raise revenue, or to discourage smoking? As far as the lung association is concerned, the primary purpose of a tax on tobacco is to discourage smoking. It wants to tax cigarettes out of existence.
However, only 29 percent of Kentuckians smoke, and a significantly greater percentage of low-income residents smoke than middle- and higher-income residents. Thus, any increase in the cigarette tax affects only a minority of Kentuckians, including a disproportionate number who are among those who are least able to pay. In short, it is not a dependable source of revenue.
Senate President David Williams thinks putting a casino gambling amendment on the ballot is a long shot. The odds of legislators approving a significant increase in tobacco taxes may be even longer.
A number of Kentucky communities -- including Ashland -- have approved ordinances in recent years to restrict smoking in public. Such ordinances would have been inconceivable a decade ago.
However, the lung association gives Kentucky low marks for not having a statewide ban on smoking in public like a growing number of other states, including neighboring Ohio. Well, while the political landscape regarding smoking in public definitely is changing, it has not shifted so much a statewide ban is politically doable.
Instead, anti-smoking advocates should continue to push for smoking bans on the local level. Once enough communities have approved such restrictions, the timing may be right for statewide restrictions.
One of the interesting twists ALA puts on its smoking report card in Kentucky is the cost associated with smoking in the state.
The lung association places the number of Kentuckians who die from lung cancer caused by smoking at 2,607 a year. Another 1,893 die from respiratory diseases attributed to smoking. It puts the cost of smoking in Kentucky at $3 billion a year.
But Frankfort's Dr. Frank Honeycutt said $3 billion does not begin to count the emotional toll of cancer, respiratory disease, heart attacks and strokes linked to smoking.
The percentage of Kentuckians who smoke continues to decline, but at 29 percent, Kentucky still leads the nation in the percentage of smokers. However, we find another statistic even more troubling: 24.5 percent of Kentucky high school students and 12.1 percent of middle school students smoke. After decades of a steady stream of anti-smoking messages and a mountain of evidence concerning the health problems caused by smoking, it is disheartening to know almost one in four high school students continue to puff away at a deadly habit.
Even in a state where tobacco once was king, attitudes about smoking are changing. To be sure, they are not changing as quickly as the lung association and health care professionals would like, but change always has come slowly in this state. Maybe Kentucky deserves its "F," but give it some credit for the progress it has made.
-- The (Ashland, Ky.) Daily Independent