Ben Chandler, once one of Kentucky’s best known and most successful politicians, is on a different sort of campaign trail these days. As the president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, he now is one of the most vocal anti-smoking advocates in the Commonwealth.
Chandler, the grandson of two-time Kentucky governor and former commissioner of baseball A.B. “Happy” Chandler, delivered his anti-smoking stump speech to the Ashland Rotary Club and it was a strong and unequivocal message about how the high number of Kentucky residents who continue to smoke not only is harming the health of those who smoke but also of those around them. Smoking also continues to have a negative impact on the state’s economy, he said.
Like his grandfather before him, Ben Chandler was a strong force in Kentucky politics for many years. After serving one-term as auditor and two terms as attorney general, he was defeated by Republican Ernie Fletcher in the 2003 gubernatorial race. However, he immediately was elected to fill Fletcher’s 6th District congressional seat. He lost his House seat to Andy Barr in 2012. He has been in his current position since July of 2016.
By living in Kentucky, Chandler told the Ashland Rotarians that they have a greater chance of getting cancer than if they lived anywhere else in the nation. Kentucky is currently ranked at 49th in the country in the rate of smoking, and the youth smoking rate in Kentucky -- 14.3 percent -- is 80 percent higher than the national average. The adult smoking rate is 62 percent higher than the national average.
“This is costing us an enormous amount of money here in Kentucky,” he said.
Chandler claimed smoking is responsible for about $2 billion in costs every year, meaning that every household in the state is paying almost $1,200 a year in added insurance and health costs.
To reduce the smoking rate and rate of cancer, Chandler said the foundation is working to have smoke-free laws and to raise the state tobacco tax by at least $1. It is an uphill battle. After a number of Kentucky cities and counties – including Ashland – enacted strong measures to restrict smoking in public, the anti-smoking band wagon suddenly came to a halt and it has been years since any community in the state approved measure to restrict smoking in public. While we think Ashland’s anti-smoking ordinance has been popular and effective, no other city or county in northeastern Kentucky has approved measures to limit smoking in public.
Like other pro-health groups in the state, the foundation supports the Kentucky General Assembly enacting a state law to restrict smoking in public. Other groups, including the powerful Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, have also called for a strong state law limiting public smoking, but to date, such laws have not come close to being approved by the Kentucky General Assembly.
Chandler did not predict the current session of the Kentucky General Assembly will enact a law restricting smoking in the state, but he said the time may be right to get a hefty increase in the state cigarette tax because of Kentucky’s current financial state.
“We’ve got very big important needs for more revenue right now and we think that that makes the raising of a tobacco or cigarette tax very possible in this session,” he said.
However, the strongest advocates for higher cigarette taxes have always said their goal is to tax cigarettes out of existence, not to raise revenue. Indeed, Chandler said the foundation is interested in raising the tax for health reasons, stating the organization thinks that around 24,000 Kentuckians will either quit or not start smoking just because of the tax.
We don’t share Chandler’s confidence that the 2018 General Assembly will raise cigarette taxes, but we support any effort that will get smokers to successfully quit their potentially deadly smoking addictions.