State, regional health experts gather at community forum

Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation For A Healthy Kentucky

Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, reported Wednesday afternoon that Kentuckians bought 35 million fewer packs of cigarettes since lawmakers raised the tax by 50 cents a pack last year.

"That tells me how big an impact policy can have," Chandler said to more than 70 regional health experts and residents who gathered at the Green River Area Development District office for a community health forum.

Smoking costs Kentucky taxpayers dearly. The state spends more than $1.9 billion annually on health care costs related to tobacco use, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

None of that counts the personal toll, Chandler said. Kentucky ranks No. 1 nationwide for residents diagnosed with cancer.

Reducing tobacco use is one of the foundation's four strategic priorities, he said. The others are access to care, obesity and adverse childhood experiences.

"We have an enormous number of challenges in this state," he said.

Chandler highlighted public policy as one way to create change. He has been a longtime advocate for smoke-free policies in schools and communities.

Chandler brought with him some staff members who shared information on Kentucky HEALTH and the dangers of schoolchildren using e-cigarettes. Bonnie Hackbarth, the foundation's vice president of external affairs, referred to e-cigs as "the single most efficient drug delivery system."

One Juul pod contains as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, Hackbarth said, as she held up the product for everyone to see.

Some students report using up to eight pods a day, she said. The FDA is investigating after receiving reports of seizures that may be related to e-cig use.

In Kentucky, nearly 27% of high school seniors report using e-cigs, she said. The percentage has doubled in the past two years.

"We've lost a decade of progress," Hackbarth said of tobacco use among the state's youth. "We're creating a new generation of tobacco users."

Education is key. Many parents, educators and students don't realize e-cigs are addictive, she said.

The foundation has created public service announcements featuring high school students who say they weren't aware those products contained nicotine. Hackbarth said the commercials will be sent to radio and TV stations across the state, as well as movie theaters.

In addition to talking about tobacco, the foundation's employees gave an update on Kentucky HEALTH, Gov. Matt Bevin's proposed overhaul to the state's Medicaid system. It is still held up in the courts until October, said Veronica Judy Cecil, vice president for policy.

Even so, residents can access more than 60 online courses through the My Rewards program, which helps them accrue money in their health savings accounts.

To date, Cecil reported, 518,000 Kentuckians have taken courses and collected about $90 million into their My Rewards accounts.

Also, Medicaid has expanded its benefits for substance use disorders, she said. The state health system now covers the cost of methadone, which is used to treat drug addiction. In addition, residential treatment centers are eligible for reimbursement.

Renee Beasley Jones, 270-228-2835, rbeasleyjones@messenger-inquirer.com

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