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Ben Chandler Discusses Smoke-Free Kentucky, Opioids, Hemp, Marijuana

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In this year's legislative session, Kentucky lawmakers raised the cigarette tax by 50 cents per pack to one-dollar ten-cents. While the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky lobbied for a higher tax, CEO and President Ben Chandler called the increase 'historic.' On Sounds Good, Matt Markgraf speaks with Chandler about the tax increase, lung cancer rates, smoke-free ordinances, opioids, hemp and marijuana. 

In this year's General Assembly, the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky championed an effort to boost the cigarette tax by a dollar or more. "That's where you really get the health benefit,” Chandler said. He admits that goal was 'ambitious.' The legislature increased the cigarette tax by 50 cents. "It is the largest cigarette tax increase in our state's history," Chandler said. He hopes the revenue will go to expenditures that could "reduce the social determinants of health." He said not getting the dollar was a "missed opportunity" considering the tax is still 60 cents below the national average.

He said the Foundation isn't finished on this. "We didn't get all we wanted this time but that just means they're going to have to put up with us again."

Chandler said his reason for this fight is that Kentucky has the highest cancer rate in the nation and the highest smoking rate in the nation. "We can't let that stand. We can't continue to lead the nation in cancer."

Chandler was recently in Murray to speak with city leaders about adopting a smoke-free ordinance similar to Paducah's (which recently expanded) and other cities in Kentucky. "Only 32% percent of our people are covered by comprehensive smoke-free laws in Kentucky." He said such an ordinance doesn't cost taxpayers anything, but smoking rates and cancer rates will decline. "There really is not a good argument as to why we shouldn't do that," he said.

Growing tobacco is a livelihood for many farmers in Kentucky, especially in west Kentucky. Chandler said tobacco has been on the decline in the commonwealth and pointed to efforts for farmers to diversify crops. Chandler said hemp presents an opportunity for farmers. He said the Foundation doesn't have a position on any potential health benefits from hemp oil. "The jury's still out on that, to tell you the truth," he said.

A healthy workforce is essential, Chandler said, when it comes to incentivizing businesses to invest in smoking and drug prevention efforts. On why a business should invest in the wellbeing of the workforce, Chandler said, "A business loses in terms of productivity on the front end and they lose in terms of cost on the back end. So they're getting hit from both directions."

On the opioid crisis, Chandler said about 1,400 people died last year of drug overdoses - "an all-time high." That being said, "we lost 9,000 people to tobacco last year, and every year."

He said the trouble with most opioid efforts is that most efforts are focused on people who are already addicted and suggested more prevention efforts. "Now I don't suggest to you that we leave those people behind," he said. "But if we really want to affect this issue in a serious way we need to prevent these addictions, to begin with." He suggested bolstering early education efforts in schools.

There has been a growing conversation surrounding marijuana as a potential alternative to opioids. Given the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky's anti-smoking efforts a potential problem could emerge as the Foundation seeks to curb smoking in a circumstance where more people are smoking marijuana. Answering this, Chandler said an upcoming forum in Lexington in September will focus on addiction and marijuana as a source for pain relief. "We want to get the foremost experts to tell us and give us the science behind that," Chandler said. "Stay tuned."

"It's very hard for me to understand why it would be helpful for your lungs to breathe anything in other than oxygen. That being said, there is a question, maybe, the benefit of pain relief in some cases may outweigh damage that you may incur as a result of inhaling that," he said.

In addition to advocating anti-smoking efforts, Chandler said he wants the Foundation to be helpful on the Medicaid waiver issue, specifically helping people not 'fall off' their coverage, by helping people meet the requirements.

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