Today, the 64-year-old Union resident raises about 4 acres of tobacco a year, one of a dwindling number of small tobacco farmers in Northern Kentucky. Concerns about cancer and other health problems related to tobacco have caused demand for the crop to wither in the last decade.
Kentucky is experiencing a fierce tug-of-war between tobacco’s deadly health effects and its exalted role in the state’s cultural and economic history. In December, Campbell and Kenton counties passed ordinances that would restrict smoking in public places, though those ordinances may be repealed before they take effect.
Statewide, 27 communities have enacted restrictions in public places since 2003, when Fayette County passed a law banning smoking in restaurants and other enclosed public spaces. That county enacted a law banning smoking in all workplaces in 2008.
Even North Carolina, the only state that produces more tobacco than Kentucky, has enacted a smoke-free law that covers restaurants, bars and other businesses that serve prepared food. It took effect in January 2010.
Over the years, tobacco sales have brought billions to the commonwealth. But the crop has also taken its toll. Consider:
- Kentucky has the highest percentage of adult smokers in the nation.
- Kentucky has the nation’s highest rates for lung cancer cases and lung cancer deaths.
- Treating diseases caused by tobacco use costs $1.5 billion a year. More than $500 of every household’s annual taxes pays for those treatments.
Johnson’s father, a longtime smoker, died of lung cancer. Johnson quit smoking at age 35 after seeing how it impacted his father’s health.
In the late 1990s, Kentucky’s tobacco crop netted about $900 million a year, according to Will Snell, an economist at the University of Kentucky. By 2009, with fewer farmers planting tobacco and prices dropping, the harvest netted about $380 million.
Smoking is on the decline in the U.S., but increasing in developing nations. As much as 75 percent of the tobacco grown in Kentucky is exported. Prices have fallen since the federal government ended tobacco subsidies in 2004, but the market is in flux. In some cases, farmers can still clear a profit of $1,000 to $1,500 an acre.
Kentucky’s smoking debate centers on conflicting rights and responsibilities between smokers and non-smokers, and the balance between the profits tobacco makes and the health-care costs it creates.
Health advocates argue smokers don’t have the right to expose others to the dangerous effects of secondhand smoke. Smoke-free laws ensure safe workplaces, they say, and reduce the costs of treating tobacco-related illness.
But some smokers and the owners of the bars, restaurants and bowling alleys they frequent want those advocates to butt out. They have rights, too, they say.
In 2007, Ohio enacted a smoke-free workplace law. Similar arguments were heard as business owners worried about losing customers to smoker-friendly bars and restaurants in Kentucky.
Nationally, it’s getting harder for smokers to light up in public. Twenty-eight states have enacted laws that bar smoking in all workplaces, including bars and restaurants.
The ordinances started in California in 1990, when Sacramento and Sacramento County passed smoke-free workplace laws.
“The vast majority of the U.S. population lives in a smoke-free jurisdiction,” said Bronson Frick, associate director of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, based in Berkeley, Calif. “Kentucky is in pretty sharp contrast with where the rest of the country is at this point.”
Campbell and Kenton county officials recently passed ordinances that would restrict smoking in public places, although both could be repealed. A second vote to repeal Campbell County’s ordinance could take place Wednesday.If Campbell and Kenton counties ban smoking in public, business owners fear smokers will flock to Boone County. Lawmakers will debate whether Kentucky should join the growing list of states that bar smoking in public places. In Frankfort, Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, introduced legislation this month that would ban smoking in any Kentucky workplace with at least one employee, including bars.
Proponents of smoke-free laws say studies show smoking bans don’t wreak havoc on the hospitality and entertainment industry.
Ellen J. Hahn, director of the Tobacco Policy Research Center at the University of Kentucky, co-authored a study released in September that found Ohio’s smoking ban had no impact on bars and restaurants in counties along the Ohio-Kentucky border.
In the first year after Fayette County (home to Lexington) enacted its smoke-free workplace law, more than 16,000 adults quit smoking, Hahn said, and the community reduced its health-care expenditures by an estimated $21 million.
If Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties enacted a comprehensive law that barred smoking in the workplace, Hahn said, heart attacks related to secondhand smoke would decrease from 941 to 800 in the first year.
Quitting is tough
Tobacco doesn’t just kill, experts say, it’s addictive. That adds another layer to the debate. Studies show about 70 percent of smokers want to quit, but most ex-smokers make several attempts before they can quit the habit.
The state needs to provide support to residents who are trying to quit smoking, said Thomas Tucker, associate director for cancer prevention and control at UK’s Markey Cancer Center and director of the state’s population-based cancer surveillance system.
“Not having the health consequences of that primary and secondhand smoke exposure means that down the road we’re not paying for the incredible health consequences,” Tucker said. “But we need to support that.”
Kentucky recently began covering some smoking cessation therapies, including medications and phone counseling through its Medicaid program, Hacker said.
Tom Seelie, 65, of Covington had to take the classes twice before he was able to quit. He’ll mark his first anniversary as a non-smoker in February.
“Before I would come in, I’d smoke a cigarette,” he said, “and then, at the end of the one-hour class, I could hardly wait go get back outside and smoke another.”
He finally decided to quit when Kentucky hiked its cigarette tax.
“(Last year) cigarettes went up about 50 cents a pack,” Seelie said. “I was smoking a carton a week. I was spending $120 a month on cigarettes, and I decided I really didn’t need to waste that kind of money.”
The Northern Kentucky Health Department, which will be charged with enforcing any smoke-free laws in Boone, Campbell, Kenton or Grant counties, offers smoking cessation classes, including the Cooper-Clayton method, which combines stress management techniques with nicotine replacement products such as the patch and gum.
The department has taken to Facebook with its smoke-free message, and is working to launch a Web-based version of the Cooper-Clayton classes, saidsenior health educator Megan Folkerth.
“Nicotine’s an extremely addictive drug,” Folkerth said. “A lot of people start when they’re very young. It’s a very hard behavior to change.”
The department is also working with three high schools on a campaign to change teens’ perceptions about smoking and educate them on the health effects of tobacco. A 2009 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 59 percent of Kentucky’s teens had tried cigarettes at least once. Experts say that teens who smoke are more likely to become adults who smoke.
Kentucky’s conflicted relationship with tobacco won’t be resolved anytime soon.
Tobacco companies contract with growers like Johnson every year. He’ll find out in March if he’ll have a contract for the spring growing season.
If prices continue to fall, he said, he’ll soon reach a point where he’ll be losing money on tobacco. He already grows and sells sweet corn, beans and tomatoes. And he’ll be 65 soon.
Johnson has seen what tobacco can do to a person’s health. But even with that knowledge, talk of smoking bans doesn’t sit well.
“I don’t think the government should have too much control over anything.”
By Peggy O’Farrell, [email protected]