FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — More than seven in 10 people in one of the nation's largest tobacco-producing states support a statewide smoking ban in most public places.
It's the highest level of support ever recorded in polling by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky since the group first asked the question in 2011. Anti-smoking advocates hope the numbers will fuel a renewed push for a public smoking ban in a state that leads the country in the number of tobacco-related cancer cases per 100,000 people.
But working against them is the state's population of smokers — more people smoke in Kentucky per capita than anywhere else in the country — and the state's long history of tobacco growing that has sustained generations of farmers.
"(Tobacco) has bought and paid for everything my life. My house, my education," said Jonathan Shell, a Garrard County tobacco farmer and the Republican majority leader in the state House of Representatives. "We don't have an appetite to get involved in telling businesses and local governments what they can and can't do."
Across the country, 27 states plus the District of Columbia have passed workplace smoking bans, with many more local governments also adopting bans. In Kentucky, 25 local governments have some kind of smoking ban, covering nearly 33 percent of the state's more than 4.3 million residents, according to the Kentucky Center for Smoke-Free Policy.
The poll, conducted from Sept. 11 to Oct. 19, surveyed 1,580 adults by telephone, including cellphones. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.5 percent. The smoking ban had support in every region of the state and across political lines: 76 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of independents said they supported the ban.
State lawmakers concluded their 2017 legislative session last week. They overwhelmingly passed a law making it easier for people to access smoking cessation programs with their health insurance. But they failed to pass a law banning all tobacco products from the state's 173 public school districts, where only 36 percent ban tobacco products on campus and at school-sponsored events. State law bans anyone under 18 from buying or using tobacco products.
Instead, lawmakers have focused on passing laws combating the state's rising toll of drug overdose deaths. In 2015, more than 1,200 people died from drug overdoses. But each year, more than 8,000 Kentuckians died from tobacco-related illnesses.
"As bad as the opioid situation is, and it's bad, that still pales in comparison to the loss we have from tobacco every single year," said Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and a former Democratic congressman. "We just can't tolerate that situation."